Posted by: rkurzweil | 09/09/2009

Los Angeles, CA

Los Angeles Skyline

Los Angeles Skyline

I have been to LA many times over the last 15 years. It is truly one of America’s great cities. There is so much to do in this place. You can go from the beaches to skiing in little over an hour, at pretty much any time of the year.

Everyone the world over is familiar on some level with Los Angeles, but largely through the image it has garnered as a result of the entertainment industry. Hollywood is a suburb of Los Angeles and the center of America’s movie and television industry. It is the place that has created the American image that is seen all around the world. But it is only an image. To see the real LA, you need to go beyond Tinseltown and its creations.

LA is a city that has been blessed with great weather almost year round. My partner and I spent the week there this past week (Sept 1 – 7, 2009). Unfortunately, the time that we were there was a time of very warm temperatures. However, since we were staying on the beach (at Redondo Beach), the heat did not affect us too much.

We also ended up being there while two big wildfires were burning in the hills and forest around the city. In fact, one of those fires was considered to be the worst wildfire in Southern California’s history. As a result, the air was full of smoke. Fortunately the air by the beach was much better.

Since I have been to LA so many times, I tried to do things that I had not done before. I think that I was fairly successful in that regard.

One of the first things that we got to do in LA was to go to the taping of the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. I have been to a few TV tapings, but this one was very enjoyable. I was a little dismayed when I found out that the main guest for the show would be John McCain. He is someone that I used to admire greatly. But as a result of his failed Presidential Campaign, I feel that he turned his back on the principles that made him so admirable for so much of his time as a US Senator. We were subjected to a typical politician’s tendency to ignore what he doesn’t want to talk about and blame everyone else for the problems that America faces. Ugh. I could not wait until his part was done. He just makes me ill these days. Fortunately the two other guests were much more to my liking. Frank Caliendo is a gifted impressionist. His ability to flow in and out of characters without hesitation is a joy to watch. Then the musical guest happened to be one of my favorite bands – Third Eye Blind. I have never had the opportunity to see them live in concert, so this was a real treat to me. They just put out a new album, but had been very quiet for many years before this new album.

Disney Hall

Disney Hall

The next day, we met up with two people that I had not seen since high school (25 years ago) who both happen to live in LA. We decided to take the subway to meet them in downtown LA. This was my first time using the Metro system in Los Angeles. The ride took us about 1 hour, and we had to transfer from the Redondo Beach line to the red line and finally to the Green line to get to Union Station in Downtown LA.

Union Station is a real treat. I happen to love old train stations and this is a beauty. One of the guys we were meeting is a 4th grade teacher and happens to be very knowledgeable about Los Angeles and California history. He gave us a tour of the station and then took us on a walking tour through part of Downtown. We got to see the Catholic Cathedral that is close to Union Station. It is a modern cathedral, and apparently was quite controversial at the time it was built. I think it was quite cool. Because it was very modern, it was very different from most cathedrals I have been in. That did not make it less interesting, though. We then walked to the Disney Hall, the Opera House, the Performing Arts Center and the Staples Center. I have heard a lot of the “rebirth” of the downtown area, but had never spent any time there before. I found it to be very clean and very enticing. We saw some of the new lofts that have been built and a brand new Ritz Carlton that towers over the Staples Center. I can understand why people would want to live in the area. I am very glad to have had the chance to see it (and thank you Howard for your excellent tour!!).

The Getty Villa

The Getty Villa

Another day, we decided to go to the Getty Villa. This was actually the site of the home of J Paul Getty. He spent several decades having the Villa built as a replica of the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum. Unfortunately, he did not live to see it completed. But it represents a true masterpiece of a gift to the people of LA. If you plan to go, please be aware that it requires a reservation. The reservation is free, but you cannot just go to the center without it. Parking is $15 per car. The Villa sits on a hill in Malibu looking out over the Pacific Ocean. But the Villa is so spectacular that you will not be thinking about the view of the Ocean. It was a real privilege to visit the Villa. It is full of statuary and other items from Ancient Greece and Rome. All I can say is WOW! John and I absolutely loved it and I would say that this is a must see. The Getty did build another site in Los Angeles right off of the 405 highway. That is where you will find the collection of paintings. Both places are worth visiting. I would highly recommend, though, that you not try to visit both on the same day. It is too much to absorb.

After visiting the Villa, we spent a while driving around Malibu and then parked and walked over to the pier. I love the beaches of LA and Malibu is definitely one of the most spectacular. The ocean is gorgeous. But I also love looking back across the Pacific Coast Highway and seeing all of the incredible houses that have been built up on the hills all around Malibu. Again, wow. It is so spectacularly beautiful. I totally understand why people want to live here. Of course it is so prohibitively expensive that few can really afford it.

Crystal Cathedral

Crystal Cathedral

As we were staying in Redondo Beach, we also had the time to explore the cities in the immediate vicinity. Redondo Beach has a great pier that is filled with interesting restaurants and shops. It was right across the street from our hotel, so we went over there several times during our stay. Next to Redondo Beach are two other very beautiful cities – Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach. In fact, I think Manhattan Beach is now my favorite area in LA. They have turned many of the streets that lead to the beach into pedestrian only streets. There is lots of parking and lots to do in the area. I have no idea what the cost is compared to other areas of LA, but I am sure it is more affordable than Malibu.

Crystal Cathedral

Crystal Cathedral

After leaving our Redondo Beach hotel, we went to Santa Ana to stay with John’s sister for a few days. The Crystal Cathedral is very close to her house, so we decided to take a ride over there and check it out. The grounds are really beautiful. I am not sure about the cathedral itself (though the inside is quite beautiful). But the statuary that can be found all around is breathtaking. There were 2 weddings taking place while we were there so we got to see both an outdoor reception area and an indoor one. The organ was playing in the main sanctuary and it is a great sound. I would not say that the Crystal Cathedral is the most exciting place that I have ever been, but I am very glad that we took the time to go. It is worth seeing.

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Mission San Juan Capistrano

The next day, we drove down to the town of San Juan Capistrano. I have been to 4 or 5 Spanish missions, both in Texas and California. The Mission at San Juan Capistrano is by far the most beautiful one I have been to (even more beautiful than the Alamo). We spent about 3 hours walking around the mission. It cost $9 to get in, but I think it is money well spent. This was truly one of the highlights of our trip to the Los Angeles area.

Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach

Of course, the beaches in Orange County are also quite spectacular. Particularly Dana Point and Laguna Beach. We went down to the beach in front of the Montage Resort in Laguna Beach. We stayed there to watch the sunset. Is there anything better than watching the sun set on the beach? I am not sure.

A lot of people write off Los Angeles. I think that is a mistake. Every time I go, I enjoy myself. There is so much to see and do in and around LA. Don’t let anyone talk you out of going. I could easily live in LA. Maybe some day I will.

To see pictures from LA, click here and here.

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Posted by: rkurzweil | 08/21/2009

Austin, TX

Me at the Pennybacker Bridge

Me at the Pennybacker Bridge

I have lived in Austin, TX for a little over 8 years now. When I decided to move here, a lot of people did not understand my decision. That’s OK because it was for me and my partner, and not for anyone else. I grew up in and spent most of my life in Florida. Most of that time was in the Miami area. I love Miami and think it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but I also think it is a very difficult place to live and I was very happy to move away. I get to go back and visit family and friends in small doses, and then come back to a place like Austin, where people are friendly and courteous.

This past week, my 15 year old nephew came to visit me and my partner and I got to experience Austin through his eyes during that time. It is always fun to do that. When you live somewhere, no matter how exciting it is, you start to take it for granted. But touring my nephew around to show him the beauty of Central Texas reminded me of just how beautiful it is. I consider myself to be very fortunate to live here.

So what’s so great about it? I probably should not tell you because too many people are moving here as it is, but that’s OK. I guess I can share. It’s probably not the best time to talk about our weather because we are currently going through our hottest and driest summer in Austin’s history (the previous hottest summer was just last year, so this has been a tough 2 years). Our lakes are at levels that have rarely been seen in the history of Central Texas (since we have not had much rain, the water is evaporating and the lake levels continue to drop about a foot to a foot and a half per week). But under normal conditions, the weather here is pretty good. Sure, our summers are hot, but not usually this hot. 2 summers ago, we only hit 100 degrees 3 times the whole summer. And when the lakes are full, there is so much to do – boating, jet-skis, wave runners, party boats, etc. It is so much fun.

Austin's Growing Skyline

Austin\’s Growing Skyline

Farther down the lake system, about 45 minutes south of Austin, you can go tubing on the Guadalupe River. I have not yet done this, but hope to do it soon. Near where the tubing sites are is the #1 water park in the country – Schlitterbahn. I have been a couple of times and it is a lot of fun.

Here in Austin, we have the largest urban colony of bats in the country. During the summer months, at sunset, 1.5 million bats stream out from under the Congress Avenue Bridge to go look for dinner (mainly mosquitoes). When you hear the description of this, you might think that it is either kind of creepy or just not that big a deal. But I got to tell you, it is very cool. I have gone to see them 3 times this year. They fly out and fly off in what looks like clouds of smoke towards the east. The stream of exiting bats continues for 30 to 45 minutes.

Long Center for the Performing Arts

Long Center for the Performing Arts

Another thing that I love about living in Austin is the proximity to the Hill Country and all of its little towns. There are so many and they are all (at least in my opinion) quite interesting. From Marble Falls and Llano to Fredricksburg, Johnson City (President Johnson’s home town) and Dripping Springs – you can go see all of the old town squares and the diners that have been around forever and the courthouses in the squares. It is all very charming and evocative of a much simpler, quieter time. When we were in Llano, a friend of ours introduced us to a barbecue restaurant called Coopers Old Time Pit Bar-b-que. This place is just fantastic. They have a bunch of huge smokers outside. You go up to the guys at the smoker, point at the pieces of meat (ribs, brisket, pork, chicken, cabrito) that you want, then take it inside where they weigh it and slice it up for you. You can eat it there or take it with (or both). It is truly the most delicious meat I have ever eaten, and well worth the 70 mile drive from my house. Mmm mmm good!!

Capital with the Frost Tower in the Background

Capital with the Frost Tower in the Background

Of course, it is impossible to drive around Austin and not see the signs of change all around. Downtown is full of cranes for high rises that are going up everywhere. When we moved here, they were just about to start work on the Frost Tower, which then became the tallest building in the city (517 feet, 33 floors). It was surpassed a few years ago by the 360 Condos (562 feet, 44 floors), and then this summer by the Austonian. The Austonian is still under construction. When it is finished, it will be the tallest residential tower in the state of Texas (683 feet, 56 floors). Many other tall towers have also been built and people are starting to live downtown in these fancy condos. With that, the crime rate has unfortunately started to go up as well. Let’s hope that the city can get that under control.

Traffic is another area where things are getting worse and worse. When we moved here, the traffic really wasn’t too bad. Now I would put it up there with cities like Miami. There are just too many people here for the roads that we have and it takes too long to build new ones (but then that is a problem in any city that is growing quickly).

Probably the thing I love the most about Austin is its people. The people here are so friendly. My nephew kept commenting to me the whole time he was here about that. He is not used to it because he lives in South Florida, which is definitely not a friendly place (one of the reasons I wanted to get out of there!) You have no idea what a difference that makes. I am truly hopeful that the constant influx of people from California and other states will not ruin that for us here in Austin. I like friendly. It is so much nicer than being a jerk.

Posted by: rkurzweil | 08/05/2009

San Francisco from another point of view – Part II

This is a continuation of my partner’s niece’s journal of her trip to Northern California this past spring. You can read the first part here.

Lighthouse1

Day #2, Monday, April 13th…

We woke up and headed to breakfast at the infamous Dottie’s a few blocks from our hotel in Union Square. There is always a line and we stood in it on a Monday for at least 20 minutes, but it is so worth it. The food was amazing! Best breakfast place, hands down! We walked across the street from our hotel, rented a car and headed for the California’s famous Route 1-Pacific Coast Highway. I almost died when we began to see the breathtaking ocean views only 35 minutes south of the city. We stopped at several beaches as well as Pigeon Point Lighthouse on our way to Costanoa, the eco resort we would be staying at for a couple of days. The resort is beautifully situated on 33,000 acres of ocean and protected wilderness. We settled into our room to change into our bathing suits for a quick soak in the outdoor hot tub before our his and her massages which included 50 minutes of deep tissue bliss. Then we sat by the outdoor fireplace and drank some wine before dinner. This place is very peaceful, no television and you’d be lucky to get a cell signal. We had dinner at the resort’s restaurant which was excellent before heading to our cozy room to sit by the fireplace and relax and recount the fun details of our day.

Seals in Santa Cruz

Seals in Santa Cruz

Day #3, Tuesday, April 14th…

Even though the weather has been nice, it was incredibly windy so the kayak adventure we had planned in Monterey Bay had to be rescheduled for later in the week. We drove down to Santa Cruz, walked on the pier, drank coffee and ate our breakfast sandwiches while checking out the sea lions before taking a drive down to Monterey for the day. This isn’t the prettiest part of route 1 but it was very cool to see all of the commercial farms. Monterey is lovely but it was so windy we could barely stand outside so we decided to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We spent a couple of hours admiring the playful sea otters and an amazing sea horse exhibit at the aquarium. The aquarium is worth stopping in if you have the time while in Monterey. We then grabbed lunch at a Mexican restaurant with a pitcher of margaritas before driving through Pacific Grove a beautiful town where the waves were pounding the shore before heading back to Costanoa. We had a quiet evening relaxing by the fire in our room after catching the sunset. Tomorrow we head to Big Sur to stay at the Lucia Lodge. We cannot wait to see this part of the Pacific Coast Highway including the 17 Mile Drive.

CaliCoastWithJoiAndScott

Day #4, Wednesday, April 15th…

Oh, where to begin, what an incredible day. We woke up and had an amazing breakfast at Costanoa where fresh, local, organic food is always served. We then set off for the drive to Big Sur, first stopping just a few miles down the road at Año Nuevo State Park. This is a must see. It is a beautiful and easy 1.5 mile walk to the elephant seals sleeping on the beach. We took lots of pictures and in some cases we were less than 20 feet away from these magnificent mammals. Then we jumped back in the car and headed straight for Carmel by the Sea after paying the toll to drive the very scenic 17 mile drive through Pebble Beach. This is a cool place to visit especially if you are interested in seeing one of the world’s most famous golf courses. Unfortunately the areas I was most interested in seeing were closed to the public as the seals were in the process of beaching to have their pups. There was fencing and signs everywhere to ensure the total privacy for the seals. California does an amazing job to protect the habitats of their wildlife. We did however get to see the Lone Cypress, one of the most photographed trees in the world. Once out of 17 mile drive we found ourselves in Carmel by the Sea which was one of the most gorgeously quaint towns we’ve ever been to. Both Scott and I decided that we could live there in a heartbeat.

Lone Cypress Tree

Lone Cypress Tree

We stumbled upon Scenic Drive by accident and that looped us through sweet residential neighborhoods, viewing oceanfront homes and scenic beaches before looping us back to Route 1. We made a quick stop in the local Safeway grocery store to stock up on wine and snacks for Big Sur. Almost immediately the drive to Big Sur amazes. I cannot even describe how breathtaking the views are. I can only say that EVERYONE should have the chance to see this part of the West Coast because the mix of mountains, cliffs and sea are truly awesome and totally protected. We drove mile after mile simply in awe of the Big Sur coastline, taking as many pictures as we could. Before arriving at Lucia Lodge we stopped at Julia Pfeiffer State Park because I had read about the amazing waterfall there. We parked and walked the .6 mile trail down to the look out and got the most spectacular vies of the waterfall. There are no words to describe the beauty of this place. We continued on to Lucia Lodge to our cabin perched on the 400 foot cliff with the waves pounding below. We slept like babies with all the windows open, our gas stove on to keep us warm, with the waves lapping the cliffs below. There are only 10 rooms at Lucia Lodge and 7-10 are cabins on the edge of the cliff, in the middle of nowhere. There isn’t anything else around except mountains, cliffs and ocean and we felt very lucky to have found such a place to stay.

Beautiful California Coastline

Beautiful California Coastline

Day #5, Thursday, April 17th…

Another stellar day! After the most peaceful sleep of our vacation, we headed straight to breakfast at the lodge where we sat outside perched above the sea and took in the beauty of this special place while sipping our coffee and homemade goodies. It was a gorgeous day, no wind, sunny in the 70’s. We loaded up the car and headed 20 miles south to Salmon Creek, an old hippie commune spot in the woods on the mountain side of the road. We hiked in to the mountain area to see the gorgeous waterfall and could immediately appreciate why approximately 300 hippies had decided to make this there home amongst the boulders deep in these woods. I think I could live there. The waterfall was magical and totally worth 1.5 hours of pretty tough hiking. We then drove about 9 miles north to Willow Creek in the Jade Cove section and spent an hour searching for jade and enjoying a quick snack.

More Coastline

More Coastline

Then it was time to head to Santa Cruz for our kayak adventure that had been canceled earlier in the week. We arrived there and the weather was perfect for our early evening kayaking in Monterey Bay. We met up with Bradford, our guide and suited up for kayaking. Once on the water we were in heaven! Scott was smiling from ear to ear, finally out doing what he wanted to do most on this trip. Within minutes of being in the water we were greeted by harbor seals and sea birds. We paddled out to the kelp beds and came upon several sea otter families. It was incredible to see the mother sea otters floating on their backs with their babies resting on their bellies. Once mother actually let her baby hop off of her to swim over to my kayak to check me out. I didn’t even dare breathe to discourage that little guy from coming towards me. What amazing friendly creatures they are. We then paddled out to a small island where seals and sea birds literally share the rocks together. What a racket they made. Our guide informed us that people who live there can hear their barks all night long if they are sleeping with the windows open.

We saw some surfers and completed our kayak adventure by paddling under the wharf pier and seeing the biggest starfish we’ve ever seen. They were literally 3 feet across attached to the pilings of the pier. A few more curious seals poked their heads up as we passed under the pier. We couldn’t have imagined a more perfect way to end our trip in Monterey Bay. We then grabbed a quick dinner watching the sunset on the wharf pier before making the long drive all the way up to wine country where we had reservations at a hotel in Healdsburg. It took us about 3 hours to get up there and headed straight to bed once there after our action packed day.

Day #6, Friday, April 18th…

We woke up and decided that we’d go to a couple of vineyards, grab some lunch, find a picnic spot and then head back to San Francisco. We went for a tasting at Seghesio, our favorite Zinfandel and then Scott remembered that our friends Betty and Ed had a personal connection to Jordan Estates so we drove over to check this place out. As we drove up the long driveway we could tell that Jordan Estates was a very special place. The grounds were incredible. We saw a sign that read “Tours and Tastings by Appt Only” but decided to hope for the best. Once we arrived we were told that they were booked full for the day but we decided to tell them how our friends love this place and next thing we knew, we got our own little private tasting! The wine was amazing and we bought a bottle to bring home with us as well as a bottle of their olive oil since they grow olives on the estate as well. We then toured their breathtaking grounds, taking pictures and decided that one day we must return to this place.

We drove over to Dry Creek General Store (the coolest store EVER!). We bought gourmet, organic sandwiches, deviled eggs, salads and wine for our picnic lunch on Lake Sonoma a few miles down the road. We parked and hiked down to the water for our own private picnic by the lake. After a wonderful lunch and some more pictures we headed back to SF to the Harbor Court near the Ferry Building for our final night of vacation. After returning the rental car and checking into this great boutique hotel we took the BART over to Berkeley for dinner at an Ethiopian Restaurant.

Day #7, Saturday, April 19th…

Our final day in San Francisco. Boo Hooo. But we made the most of it. Scott and I woke up early to witness for the first time all week the infamous morning fog in the Bay area. We headed across the street to the Ferry Building for the Farmer’s Market. OH MY GOD this is so worth getting up early for. We had freshly ground coffee, oysters, breakfast, everything fresh and organic and locally grown or harvested. We spent a couple of hours just watching the people and the vendors, sampling a little of this and a little of that as the fog burned off. Then it was time to check out of our hotel and be picked up by Karen and her fiancé for our day together with them. Once they picked us up we headed to Muir Woods to hike amongst the Redwood trees. We had a beautiful warm, sunny day to do just that and a great time was had by all. After our hike we headed to Karen and John’s place to clean up and change clothes for our final San Francisco treat, dinner at the Slanted Door restaurant in the Ferry Building. This was one of the best meals we had. We ordered a bunch of dishes to share and drank amazingly delicious cocktails before heading to the airport for our red-eye flight back home. Yes, we packed a lot in, but it was so worth it. We wouldn’t have changed a thing!

Posted by: rkurzweil | 07/31/2009

San Francisco from another point of view

Up to now I have only posted trips that I have taken. This post will be by my partner’s niece, Joi Prud’homme. She and her husband (Scott) spent a few days in San Francisco and the surrounding area. It was their first time there.

I, of course, have spent so much time in the Bay Area. I love it there, but it is very nice to see a newbie’s take on the area. So here is her description of her time in Northern California:

Scott and Joi on their first day in San Francisco

Scott and Joi on their first day in San Francisco

Our trip to Northern California took some planning but was undoubtedly one of the most amazing trips we have ever had. We took an early flight out of Newark, NJ direct to San Francisco on Saturday, April 11th and arrived before noon on a picture perfect sunny day. My childhood friend who is lucky enough to live in San Francisco picked us up at the airport and we immediately took in the sights. I knew within fifteen minutes that San Francisco would become one of my favorite places on earth. It is truly the most beautiful of all the cities I’ve traveled to. Here are some of the highlights from our first day…

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge…we photographed the bridge from below and above. My friend drove us to two parks that gave us amazing views of the bridge. We stopped for lunch at Cavallo Point, which is a bunch of beautifully restored military buildings and is now a resort nestled outside the Golden Gate Bridge. We ate our lunch outside facing the water and the bridge and the food and drink was amazing. I had 2 deliciously spicy Bloody Marys and a grain fed beef burger with French fries cooked in duck fat. Yum, yum. Scott had a Dungeness crab BLT that was to die for. That sandwich set the bar for the remainder of the trip. We knew right away that good, fresh food was going to be part of our daily itinerary. We took some great pictures from our lunch spot of the bridge and Alcatraz. After some more sightseeing we went to check into our hotel, the Hilton at Union Square to unpack and get a quick nap before dinner. We hopped in a cab and headed to A16, a wonderful Italian bistro to have dinner with my friend and her fiancé. The atmosphere was amazing as was the food and the wine. We ate house cured salamis, house made mozzarella, brick oven Neapolitan style pizza and homemade gnocchi paired with D Cubed Zinfandel 2005 Napa. We spent several hours talking, laughing, and sharing good food, wine and company. Perfect ending to a perfect first day of vacation.

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

Day #2-Sunday, April 12th…

Today was one of the best days of my life. I literally fell in love, with San Francisco. Scott and I began the day sleeping in, getting on West Coast time, nothing fancy for breakfast, just some Starbucks which was conveniently located in the lobby of our hotel. We were blessed with another picture perfect day, sunny and 70’s so we decided to make the most of it. We took a cable car to the Castro District and walked around a bit before stumbling upon this beautiful neighborhood. Lo and behold on the corner of Castro and Beaver there was a sign in front of this 19th century Victorian for sale for an open house. So of course we had to check that out! Words cannot describe how gorgeous this house was and for only $1.8 million you too can own a three bedroom historic home with in-law suite, outside gardens, deck, 12-foot ceilings, marble fireplaces, chandeliers, Victorian accents and incredible views of the city. Hey, one can dream! Maybe someday. We then walked to Haight-Ashbury and managed to find an old speakeasy-type bar where you can make your own Bloody Marys! I was in heaven. You pick your vodka, the bartender pours ice and the vodka of your choice in a glass and then you mosey on over to the bloody mix bar where all the fixings you can ever want are! We enjoyed our spicy Bloody Marys and met some interesting characters, including a dog that was happy to spend the day sitting in the bar with her humans. We met an older gay gentleman who gave us some great tips for free fun in the city and another kind gentlemen nicely offered to share his pot with me. I of course refused, especially since he didn’t really offer it to my husband, just me. After he burned one down, he came back to his seat by us at the bar and recommended that we take the ferry to Sausalito around sunset. We tried but the ferry schedule didn’t work for us that particular day.

Bloody Mary

Bloody Mary

After 3 Bloody Marys we decided to walk down to Golden Gate Park and this is where I officially fell in love and decided, some how, some way, some day, we are going to live in this city! We entered the park, which was beautiful blooming with every imaginable flower and tree and then we heard drumming. We followed the music until we happened upon a drum session and an open field revealing at least 50 drummers. The coolest hippies – black, white, young, old – all dancing and drumming together. There was even a man dressed in a very dirty Easter bunny costume dancing with a naked 2 or 3 year old little black boy. What a way to spend an Easter afternoon! We got lost in the music for quite a while, taking in all of the sights, sounds and smells. Once we left the drum session we walked a little further and stumbled upon the National AIDS Memorial Grove. This was a sad but beautifully humbling place. We took the peaceful walk through the woods and gardens that honored all who have lost their lives to this devastating virus. We continued to tour the park but got hungry so we hopped in a cab and headed to China Town and ate at the classic Empress of China. The food was great but the coolest thing was taking the elevator up to the garden rooftop level restaurant. Great views, highly recommended.

After we ate we walked our meal off by walking down to Fisherman’s Wharf. This was a bit too touristy for our taste but it was great to check out the boats, the waterfront and all of the view from that part of the city. The best part was finding a bunch of protected docks covered with sleeping sea lions all curled up like puppies in a pack. We watched them for quite a while and then hopped in a cab to head back to our hotel for a little siesta. We took the advice of the older gay gentlemen and walked over to check out the St. Francis hotel “special” glass elevators. The St. Francis is a gorgeous, historic, pricey hotel and it is one of the taller hotels in Union Square. The trick is to walk in there like you belong there and head straight to the elevators. Once inside the elevator, you press the button for the highest floor and enjoy the amazing views of the city. Go all the way up and then back down and feel free to repeat as many times as you wish! Free fun! Later in the evening we walked over to enjoy some live Irish music and the hospitality that only authentic Irish bartenders can deliver at Foley’s Pub. They had some great stuff on tap including my favorite Irish cider.

To be continued….

Posted by: rkurzweil | 07/25/2009

Yosemite

Me at Entrance to Yosemite

Me at Entrance to Yosemite

I recently returned from a trip to the Bay Area in Northern California. I will not be discussing San Francisco in this post, as I already have a post about it (which you can read here).

I was trying to think of things to do in the area that my partner and I had never done before. Around the same time, John and I had been talking about wanting to start going to see the National Parks.

Putting the two thoughts together, I asked John if he wanted to go to Yosemite instead of staying in San Francisco. Of course, he said yes and so began a totally unexpected and wondrous time in one of the oldest and grandest National Parks in the world.

We arrived at the San Francisco airport and got a car (it has been a LONG time since I have rented a car in San Francisco!!). I was looking at the maps and trying to figure out the best place to stay for visiting Yosemite without actually staying inside the park. It came down to 2 cities that are relatively close to the entrances to the Park – Merced and Oakhurst. Merced is about 60 miles from the main entrance into the Yosemite Valley part of the park (which is the area that most people visit). Oakhurst, as it turns out, is about 20 miles from the southern entrance to the Park, near the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias.

Yosemite Valley

Yosemite Valley

We decided on Merced (it was a better price – no other reason, really). It is about a 120 mile drive from San Francisco. We brought our GPS with us and it wanted to direct us out through the East Bay to Tracy and down California 99 from there. I did not want to go that way, so I routed us through Gilroy in the South Bay and then through the Pacheco Pass. I had driven through there once before and found it to be quite beautiful, so I wanted to show it to John.

It did not disappoint. I have talked to other people that scoff at my saying that this route is beautiful. Well, I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Both John and I found the drive to be quite breathtaking.

Merced itself is not much to speak of. It does have a very cute downtown area, but other than that, we were not so impressed.

We rested for the night and got up the next morning ready for our Yosemite adventure. The drive from the hotel to the Park Entrance was about 2 hours. During this drive, we went from flat farmland to gentle hills and then to bigger and bigger hills, until we got into the Yosemite area and started seeing the great granite monoliths that can be found all over Yosemite. Each mile we went was more and more spectacular. We started seeing waterfalls and the Merced River was flowing fairly rapidly right alongside the road we were on.

Bridalveil Falls

Bridalveil Falls

Then we got inside the Park and things got even more breathtaking. The first real symbol of Yosemite that we saw was El Capitan. This is a giant granite peak which towers over the Yosemite Valley. Right nearby are the Yosemite Falls and the Bridalveil Falls. Yosemite Falls happens to be the tallest waterfall in the US, at a height of over 2000 feet. The tallest waterfall I had seen before that was Multnomah Falls in Oregon, which was a mere 600 feet tall. Normally, the Falls would be almost dry at this time of the year. Fortunately that was not the case when we were there. I love waterfalls and this is a truly spectacular one.

We decided to go to the Yosemite Lodge and take a tram tour of the Yosemite Valley. This is about a 2 hour tour in an open air tram (much like the ones at Disney World). It is so much nicer to have someone else do the driving. You get to sit back and enjoy. It is so beautiful and very difficult to describe. Ansel Adams, the famous photographer, took phenomenal photos of Yosemite, but even he was unable to capture the full effect of this wondrous place. We only really spent 1 day there, but I can see why people would want to go for 2 or 3 days. Wow! Wow! Wow!

El Capitan

El Capitan

Because it was summer and the weather was so nice, the place was quite crowded. It is actually one of the things that had kept me from going in the past – I thought it would be too overrun with tourists and thus not very enjoyable. Boy was I wrong. Even with the throngs of people, it was great and I definitely want to go back. Maybe next time I go will be in winter. It would be so magnificent – I hope I get the chance.

Other sites we saw on our tram tour were Glacier Point, Half Dome and North Dome. We also got to see many of the meadows the dot the Valley. We stopped near El Capitan and the tour guides pointed out the people that were climbing up the side of the mountain. From where we were, they looked like little dots. We counted at least 10 people up there. The average climb apparently takes 3 – 4 days. That means that the climbers have to sleep up there. They either find a natural ledge or they bring a temporary one with them. Better them than me.

Fallen Giant Sequoia - me standing in front of the roots

Fallen Giant Sequoia - me standing in front of the roots

On our way out of the park, we drove to the south side and went to visit Mariposa Grove. I had wanted to see some of the Giant Sequoias but did not realize that Sequoia National Park was so far away, so we settled for the Grove. It was really beautiful. Those trees are amazing. 200 – 300 feet tall, and they are the oldest living things on the planet. The only down side is that Mariposa Grove is so small. I hope to visit Sequoia National Park later this year during a trip I am taking to the Los Angeles area.

To anyone out there that is thinking of visiting the National Parks, let me encourage you to go! You do not have to be a hiker or a rock climber or a camper. You can visit (and enjoy) Yosemite even if you don’t do those things. It is so beautiful. Undoubtedly, you will be moved by it.

To see some of my pictures, click here.

Posted by: rkurzweil | 06/20/2009

Portland – Part II

This is a continuation of my prior post on Portland, OR, which you can read here.

I have to mention that we left temperatures approaching 100 in Austin. The weather in Portland was incredible. Highs from 70 to 75, and lows in the 50’s. It was nice to have a brief break from the Texas heat!

Pride Parade

Pride Parade

The weekend we were in Portland was the weekend of Gay Pride. There was a parade, a 2 day festival and numerous other events. We were looking forward to seeing how they celebrate in Portland. We have been to Pride events in Austin, Miami/Fort Lauderdale, New York and San Francisco. Well, Portland did not disappoint. The Parade lasted at least 2 hours. There seemed to be a group for everything. There was also a significant involvement on the part of the police and elected officials (including the Governor of Oregon, several Senators and Representatives, the Mayor of Portland and numerous other political figures).

The festival was located in the Tom McCall Waterfront Park. There must have been 250 – 300 booths. It was quite impressive. We hope to be able to give some suggestions to the people that do the events in Austin so that we can improve it – because it needs to be improved (though our parade was great this year).

We have noticed that the people here in Portland are very strange. I know that’s funny coming from the “Keep Austin Weird” city, but Portland seems much weirder than Austin. For example, at the stroke of midnight on Saturday night of the Pride weekend, there was a nude bicycle parade. There were about 3,000 bikers that rode through either completely naked or very close. This is apparently a very Portland thing (so much so that a recent court case on indecent exposure for doing something similar was thrown out due to the “well established precedent” of naked bicycle events in Portland).

We also noticed a very significant homeless problem. Everywhere we went seemed to be filled with homeless people begging for money. I understand that there is a homeless problem in every city, but it is really major in Portland (like as bad as in San Francisco). There are also large parts of the downtown area that are very “edgy” (in other words – run down). I did not always feel completely safe or comfortable here, which is very unusual for me.

One of the other things that we went to in Portland was the Saturday Market. It is a sprawling street market with hundreds of booths offering all kinds of goodies, including lots of art work made by the people manning the booths. John and I really enjoyed this. We spent all morning Saturday looking through all of the booths.

Haystack Rock

Haystack Rock

As I mentioned earlier, we called Martin’s Gorge Tours to take us on a tour of the Oregon Coast. I was going to rent a car and drive myself, but it turned out that the rentals prices were extremely high (like $100 or more for a 1 day rental) and it would have been fairly involved to get the car and then get back to our hotel afterwards, as we had to go to the airport to rent a car. It worked out so much better, though. Martin is very knowledgeable about the coast and about some neat, out-of-the-way places that most tours miss. He took us first to Cannon Beach and to the famous Haystack Rock (this is a spot that everyone goes to, but when you are there it is very obvious why everyone goes). It is a marine park that also has tons of nesting birds in the spring. We saw puffins, seagulls, common murres, cormorants, oystercatchers and even one bald eagle. I sat and watched the birds for a long time, as I am a bird lover.

Oregon Coast

Oregon Coast

There also was all kinds of sea life. The beach we were on was actually only there because the tide was low. In high tide, it would have been completely under water. There were little ponds everywhere that were filled with hermit crabs, anemones, mussels, snails and all kinds of other goodies. There were starfish everywhere, hanging on to the rocks. It was sunny, but windy and cold on the beach. We were prepared for it, though, so it was an immensely enjoyable time.

From there we went on to some other great spots, including Hug Point, Oswald West State Park and Manzanita. Our last stop before returning to Portland was in Tillamook at the Tillamook Cheese Visitors Center. They make some of the best Sharp Cheddar cheese I have ever tasted. You can tour the facility to see how cheese is made, as well as how ice cream is made. This was also a lot of fun, even though it was filled with literally hordes of visitors.

Our last day in Portland was a half day. We had a mid-afternoon flight, so we did not have time to do a lot. We did manage to cram a lot in during the short time we did have. We walked all through the Pearl District. This is an old industrial section of town that is slowly being renewed. Lots of people are moving into old buildings that have been turned into condominiums. I know it sounds like it would be awful and just a repeat of what is happening in just about every city in America these days. But it was actually very nice. The buildings have a lot of character and they have done a magnificent job in keeping green spaces everywhere.

Tanner Springs Park

Tanner Springs Park

One of the parks we saw is called Tanner Springs Park. It is actually a man-made wetlands, recreating what was there before the area was settled. They did such a great job with this small park (it is one city block). They used recovered items from railroad construction to build a fence on one side and it is very attractive as well as being very interesting. It is not big, but it is definitely an oasis in the middle of the city.

I will not say that Portland is a city that I will run back to as there are many other places I still want to see, but I am glad that I was able to visit. There is a lot that is worth seeing in Portland and I definitely enjoyed it.

I want to specifically mention three restaurants that we “discovered” in Portland. The first is Al-Amir. It is a Lebanese restaurant. It is not in the nicest area of town, but it is a moderately upscale restaurant with a great menu and really good food. The prices are not that high either. It will cost about $20 to $25 a person to eat dinner.

Another restaurant we really enjoyed was Alexis Greek restaurant. Again, it is not in the best area of town. But the food was spectacular. The service was also very good. I had a combination lunch plate that included souvlaki pork, grape leaves, spanikopita (spinach pie), Greek salad and a few other Greek specialties.

Finally, we also went to a restaurant called Mother’s Bistro and Bar. We had walked by it on our way to Al-Amir, so we decided to take a look at the menu. We ended up eating dinner here. They have a pretty large menu. Included on the regular menu are pirogues, matzo ball soup and a chopped liver appetizer. Another cool thing was their rotating “mother of the month” menu. I don’t know if it is mothers of staff members, but whatever it is, it is neat. When we were there, it was a Chinese menu.

I definitely recommend each of these restaurants.

To see some of my photos of Portland, Mt Hood and the Oregon Coast, click here.

Posted by: rkurzweil | 06/17/2009

Portland – Part I

My partner, John, and I have been trying to go to Portland, OR for some time now. For one reason or another, it has been delayed a few times now. We finally got to go in June of 2009.

We have a good friend that lived in Portland for some time and she loved it there, so we had very high expectations. I have also read quite a bit about the city and it is often characterized as one of the best cities in the US to live in, play in and visit. We stayed a total of 6 days, though with traveling to and fro, we actually had 5 days in the city.

This trip turned out to be challenging in terms of picture taking. I really enjoy taking pictures of the things John and I see on our trips. I love natural beauty (such as the mountains or forests, or lakes, etc.). I also love rocky beaches. In addition, I am an architecture aficionado, so I like to take pictures of architecturally interesting buildings (from all styles of architecture) and bridges. On the first day of our trip, as we were preparing to leave for Mt Hood, I dropped my camera into water, rendering it completely unsable. Needless to say, I was very upset about it. I tried to dry it out with a hair dryer as best as I could, but it did not work. I was reduced to taking pictures of Mt Hood and the Columbia Gorge with my iPhone. It takes decent pictures, but they are no comparison to my other camera. Oh well. At least I was able to take some pictures.

Mt Hood

Mt Hood

I am a major lover of the mountains. When we were in Seattle, we took a day trip out to Mt Rainier and the surrounding area. There are several major mountains near Portland, the highest being Mt Hood (at almost 12,000 feet), and probably the most well-known being Mt St Helens (which erupted in 1980). We decided to take a day trip out to Mt Hood, and combine that trip with a trip through the Columbia Gorge – the area carved out by the Columbia River.

Timberline Lodge

Timberline Lodge

Mt Hood did not disappoint at all. We lucked out with some pretty spectacular weather and got some great, cloudless shots of the mountain all the way to the summit. We stopped at the Timberline Lodge. It is a privately owned lodge that was rescued from disrepair in the 1950’s. One of the things it is best known for is the fact that it was used as the setting for The Shining. I have never seen the movie, but apparently anyone who has would recognize the lodge. The lodge itself is quite beautiful and it is the gateway to skiing on Mt Hood. We were there in June, but there was plenty of snow, as well as plenty of people skiing down the slope right down to the lodge. It’s pretty cool to see people skiing in June.

After leaving Mt Hood itself, we drove through Mt Hood National Forest on our way to the Hood River Valley and then the Columbia Gorge. We stopped at a place called the Gorge White House. It is a beautiful turn of the century building that is actually in use as a house. It is also a farm and a flower garden. You can go through and pick your own strawberries and flowers for purchase. Right behind it is the Mt Hood Winery and their vineyards. The setting is absolutely spectacular with the rolling hills on one side and Mt Hood in the near distance in the other direction.

We then drove back toward Portland through the Columbia Gorge. This is territory that was explored by Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition at the beginning of the 19th Century (along with their tour guide and his wife, Sacagawea). It is really impossible to describe how beautiful this area is. It is one of those places that you just have to see to get the full effect. The river has carved a deep gorge into the land for quite some distance (I think we were about 130 miles from the Pacific Ocean when we started heading west along the Columbia River). There are numerous dams and bridges over the Columbia, with Oregon on the south side and Washington on the north bank. This is must-see, even if you do nothing else in the area. Wow.

I should mention the good luck we had with our tour to Mt Hood and the Gorge. We were initially supposed to go with one company, but they did not have room for us. So they gave us the number of another tour operator – Martin Hecht of Martin’s Gorge Tours. When he came to pick us up at our hotel, I was expecting a small bus. What we got was a mini-van and a tour all to ourselves. Martin could not have been nicer or more accommodating. He knows his stuff and was a wonderful tour guide. But even better, because we were the only people on the tour, we were able to customize the trip to our liking. Anyone that is heading to the Portland area would be well advised to give Martin a call and use him for any days tours in the general area (we ended up hiring him to take us to the Oregon Coast as well – more on that later).

Beautiful Rose

Beautiful Rose

On the next day, we made plans to go on a city tour of Portland. We like to do these whenever possible at the beginning of a trip to a new city so that we can get a feel for the city and a feel for what things we should go back to and visit in more detail. Unfortunately, the city tour was with another company and it was not the best tour (there were 4 other people on the tour and 1 of them in particular was very difficult and kept monopolizing the tour guide’s attention. Also our tour guide was very abrupt and surly. But we made the best of it.) There were plenty of things we got to see on this tour that we really enjoyed. One was the Pittock Mansion. It is about 1,000 feet above the downtown area and is quite beautiful. The grounds are stunning as well. We also stopped at the International Rose Test Garden. Oh my G-d. The roses apparently had all started blooming within the previous 2 – 3 weeks. They were spectacular. There were thousands of them, of all colors and types. Whites, Yellows, Reds, Oranges, Purples. Bushes and climbers. They were also some of the biggest roses I have ever seen. This setting is also very cool – above the city of Portland and giving spectacular views of the city and the distant mountains (on a clear day).

Pittock Mansion

Pittock Mansion

We also got to drive around a lot of areas of town, including Old Town, Chinatown and the Pearl District. The trouble was that we were stuck inside the van and did not make any stops in the city after the Rose Test Garden. That really lowers the enjoyment of the tour. We did meet a lovely woman from Atlanta, so at least there was that.

Later, on our own, we went to the Classical Chinese Garden. This a walled garden that is one complete city block. Inside is a lake and weeping willows; a traditional tea house; a small art gallery; a bonsai garden and some great traditional style Chinese rooms. You almost cannot even hear the city from inside the garden. It was a definite highlight for us of our time in Portland. There is also a Traditional Japanese Garden, but we did not have the time to see it. Another time.

To be continued.

To see some of my photos of Portland, Mt Hood and the Oregon Coast, click here.

Posted by: rkurzweil | 06/08/2009

Madrid – Part III

This is the third part of my post on Madrid. To read the second part, click here.

May 9, 2009

After leaving the Prado Museum, we walked to the Parque del Buen Retiro. As mentioned before, this was once for the royals only, but is now open to all. It is a beautiful escape from the hustle bustle of the city all around it. It is also quite a bit cooler due to the heavy canopy of the trees.

After eating some lunch, we walked over to the train station through which we had originally arrived in Madrid (Puerta Atocha). There is actually a rain forest/tropical garden INSIDE the train station. We were there during the siesta hours, so we were not able to enter the garden completely, but it is not that large and you can pretty much see it from the outside. There is boggy area that is loaded with turtles. There were hundreds of turtles of all sizes and ages in this part. Very cool.

We went back to our room at this point because after spending 10 days non stop in Barcelona and Madrid, we are literally worn out and can barely move another step. It has been absolutely wonderful and I am very glad we came. But I need to rest now!

We took a ride back to our hotel on the Madrid Metro. It was very different from the metro in Barcelona. The stations were definitely larger in Madrid. A ride in Madrid is only €1, while it is €1.35 in Barcelona. In Barcelona, every line that we went on had maps showing which line the train you were on belonged to. They also had both spoken announcements and a computerized display that told you what stop you were at and what the next stop was. In Madrid, the train that we went on had a map of 7 different lines in it, and did not help you identify what line you were on. They also did not have any announcements (or any other indication) about the station you were in or what the next station would be. I am truly surprised by this. Madrid is far larger than Barcelona. One would expect that the system would be higher quality. The ride was very smooth and comfortable, though.

We did venture out again for dinner. This time we went to the Chueca part of Madrid. This is the more Bohemian section of town, and also the gay section. We ate dinner at a restaurant in the Chueca Square. Great people watching. The people here are spectacularly beautiful. They are just so obnoxious. In Italy, they are beautiful and not so obnoxious.

After eating, we decided to try to go to a gay bar. We had a beer there, but once again, we ran into that attitude. There were not that many people in the place (like maybe 3 other than us), but still the staff could not have been less interested. We went to the downstairs bar where we proceeded to be completely ignored by the bartender and another staff member that were down there. They were so busy either talking to each other about how fabulous they are or playing with their cell phones. They literally acted like we were not there. They would not even look at us. I just do not get that attitude and I do not like it one bit. It literally sucks the life out of you. After that, all I wanted to do was leave and go back to my room. I did not even want to try another bar. That’s just sad and there is really no need for people to be this way. I will be happy to get back to the friendly people of Austin. We have barely experienced a drop of hospitality since we got here. Too bad.

One thing that we did not see any sign of is the economic downturn. There were ongoing building projects everywhere in both Madrid and Barcelona. There were hordes of tourists everywhere as well. So there is plenty of money coming in to the hotels, restaurants, bars, shops, etc. in both cities.

May 10, 2009

Today is our flight home. We arranged for a cab to take us from the hotel to the airport. Little did I know that the cab would cost us €50 (about $70). Geesh. That’s really ridiculous. Next time I will look into a train. That has to be a lot cheaper.

The airport is HUGE. After going through security, we have to take the escalators down about 4 levels to a tram that will take us to our gate. The tram ride was at least 15 minutes. Is the airport really that large? When I get to a place with internet access, I am going to have to look at the map of this airport. I cannot believe that it would be this far. It must be in a different location altogether.

We got to the airport before 9 and went right into the line to check in. By the time we got off of the tram and got to the Passport Control area, it was already 10 am. (I should mention how SLOW the lines are everywhere in Spain. I have never seen slower cashiers – everywhere we went. We were third in line at our ticket counter and it still took over 30 minutes to get our boarding passes and check our luggage – and no one was having to do anything out of the ordinary).

Passport Control went fairly quickly, after which it was about a 10 minute walk to the gate area. We finally got there and only had about 20 minutes until the plane started boarding.

People had lined up into the Priority Access group and regular access group on both sides of the gate. But as we found in other parts of Spain, the line really didn’t mean anything. When they actually called the groups to board, the people in line just rushed the front of the line, bypassing all of the other people that had been waiting in line with them. Grr. One of the guys in line in front of us made the comment, “well, we are in Spain.” That about sums it up.

We are flying on a Boeing 777. This is such a great plane. Our flight over to Barcelona was not fun. Hopefully this will be a better flight. We are flying through Miami, then on to Dallas and finally Austin. When we got on, it turned out that John’s seat would not recline so he ended up getting moved to another seat on the other side of the plane, about 20 rows behind me. That wasn’t a problem as I had plenty of reading and music and movies to occupy my time and he was able to relax.

This plane is one that has the individual screens at each seat, with choices for movies, TV shows, games and radio. That certainly helps the time pass.

It was such a wonderful trip. I am so glad that we had the opportunity to go and I am sure that I will go again in the future.

To see some of my photos of Madrid, click here.

Posted by: rkurzweil | 06/04/2009

Madrid – Part II

This is the second part of my post on Madrid. To read the first part, click here.

Sculpture in front of Reina Sofia Museum

Sculpture in front of Reina Sofia Museum

After resting for a while, we decided to go over to the Reina Sofia (Queen Sophie) Museum. This is a museum of Modern Art. Usually, I would not run to a modern art museum. However, there is one painting in this museum that I really had to see. That is “Guernica” by Picasso. This is the first piece of art that I ever actually studied. It was in an Art Appreciation class at Miami-Dade Community College and was part of a total about face that I did with regards to art. Before this class, I had no interest in art whatsoever. Now, I have been to dozens of the world’s great museums, all over the world. And my life is definitely richer for the experience.

Reina Sofia Museum

Reina Sofia Museum

There was not a lot else in this museum that was of interest to me, except for a room full of Cubist art. I really love Cubism and it is not very common in most museums. I have been fortunate to see a few great pieces in the Art Institute of Chicago. But it was fun to see some of the works at the Reina Sofia by Delaunay, Picasso and a few of the other great Cubist artists.

We got home and were able to use Skype to make some calls to some people back in the US. This technology is really cool. I was able to call some corporate numbers in the US for no charge (I had to call the people at my time share to straighten something out regarding my reservation). I also was able to call other Skype users for no charge, and even have video on the call. I had pre-bought some credits as well and was able call any phone number in the US and Australia for 2 cents a minute. This is definitely one of those areas where technology has made life better. It truly is a small world now.

May 8, 2009

We found a great little restaurant for breakfast yesterday, so we went back to it today. The man that runs it was so nice and friendly. He remembered us from the day before, even to the point of remembering what we had ordered. We have found so little friendliness in Spain, so we definitely were glad of this place.

Today we decided to ride the Madrid Vision tourist bus. This is like the bus trip we did around Barcelona. It has two lines. One goes around Old Madrid and the other goes around Modern Madrid. You can get off and on at any stop, as many times as you want, for either 1 day or for 2 days. We bought the 1 day pass. This is a great way to get an overview of the city. One of the things that this bus trip definitely showed us is that the traffic in Madrid is horrible. We were caught in a lot of traffic all throughout the Old Madrid route. This was especially true when trying to go by the Puerta del Sol area. It took about 20 minutes to go 2 blocks. Another area that was super congested was the Gran Via. This is a road that was built in the 19th Century. It is lined on both sides by very beautiful buildings and businesses.

Puerta de Alcala

Puerta de Alcala

On the bus trip, we went by the Puerta de Alcala. This is a 65 meter high “gate” with 5 arches. It is kind of like an Arc de Triomphe, but bigger and more grand. We also went by the Prado museum, the Parque del Buen Retiro (a large park built for the monarchy that is now open to all) and several dozen other sites. The Old Madrid tour was definitely more interesting that the Modern Madrid tour, but I am glad that we were able to do both parts.

I was even more glad when we were able to get off of the bus. Because of all of the stop and go traffic, the ride was very bumpy and uncomfortable. At least the weather was beautiful (sunny and hot).

By the time we got back to our apartment, we were so worn out. Our feet are almost raw from all of the walking we have been doing. I am glad that we have been able to do it. A few years ago, both of us had such major problems with our feet that we would not have been able to do this. Frankly, I am not sure how many more trips like this we will be able to take. Age is really starting to take a toll on both of us.

May 9, 2009

Today is our last day in Madrid. I am really sad to have to say that. I always get the “last day blues” when I am on a trip that I really enjoy. (I actually was depressed for two weeks or so after coming home from my first visit to Hawaii.) On the other hand, it will be nice to get home and to see my doggies.

El Prado

El Prado

There are 2 museums that I really want to go to, but I realize that I will probably end up not going to one of them. We decide to go to the Prado Museum. This is housed in a one-time palace. As so man of the guide books will tell you, the building is as much a part of the experience as the art. It is truly magnificent. Walking up to the front, there is a beautiful pathway along the Paseo del Prado, lined with columns and statues. This is considered one of the great museums of the world, and I can certainly understand why. It is certainly, without question, the greatest collection of Spanish art anywhere. It has works by Velazquez, El Goya, El Greco, Titian, Tintoretto, Raphael and so many more.

Walking into and through this museum is an overwhelming experience. I strongly recommend to anyone that is serious about going to this museum that you leave it for a day that this will be your only museum. Otherwise, it is simply too much to take in. I can only describe it as sensory overload. In addition, the typical painting in here is quite large, so even the scale of the art is overwhelming.

After going through a dozen or so rooms, I just was not able to take in any more. It is breath-taking art. Every piece you see is just awe-inspiring. Words cannot begin to describe the experience.

Close to the front of the museum, as we were leaving, we saw a sign for sculptures. So we followed the signs and found ourselves in a Cloisters room. This room is part of the extension of the Prado and was actually originally a part of the next door Cathedral of St Jeronimo. This was once an outdoor patio bordered by arches all around. They have now enclosed the area, but the arches remain. There are sculptures all around the room. But the room itself is just so spectacular that it is hard to concentrate on any of the sculpture.

To be continued.

To see some of my photos of Madrid, click here.

Posted by: rkurzweil | 06/01/2009

Madrid – Part I

I recently got back from a fantastic trip to Spain. We went to Barcelona and Madrid. In my previous few posts, I shared my journal of our time in Barcelona. Next I would like to share with you my time in Madrid.

May 6, 2009

Today we took a train from Barcelona to Madrid. Our train was scheduled to depart at 3:30. We were able to extend our check out at the hotel until 1:30. We got to the train station at about 2 pm. We had something to eat and then proceeded to the waiting lounge for our train.

At 3 pm, we were able to board the train. I got preferred seats (as opposed to Tourist Class). The only slight hassle we had is that they had to change trains after we had gotten settled in. I am not sure what the reason was, but I think there was a mechanical problem with the first train.

The train we were on is called the Ave. It is a high speed train that takes you from Barcelona to Madrid in 2½ hours. We were going nearly 200 miles per hour. I love riding the trains in Europe. I have traveled from London to Dublin (including a ferry), Paris to Brussels and Amsterdam, Budapest to Vienna and Vienna to Prague via train. Especially with all of the security on a plane these days, it is so much better of a way to travel. I wish we were able to do more of that in the US. But the vast distances back home make it hard to really travel by train (except in the Northeast, where riding a train is a very good experience and, in my opinion, a much better option than going by plane).

The countryside we are passing is absolutely gorgeous. Rolling hills and small mountains; vineyards; small picturesque towns, etc. It almost makes me want to do this drive by car. Some of the towns we are seeing are definitely older towns too.

Atocha Train Station

Atocha Train Station

We arrived at the Puerta Atocha train station in Madrid at just after 6 pm. We hopped into a taxi to get to our hotel. We are staying at a place through our time share and I am not really sure what we will be getting. Once we get there, though, we find that the place is really fantastic and the location is even better. We actually could have walked from the train station, if we had known our way around (though dragging your luggage through crowded streets is not my idea of fun). It was called the Apartamentos Turisticos and is located on Calle Principe, right in the middle of Old Madrid.

After resting for a while, we walk around our part of the city. We are staying just off the square called Puerta del Sol. There are gorgeous buildings everywhere. Looking at the map, I see that we are basically mid way between the Prado area and the Palace area. About half of the things that I have looked into doing here in Madrid are near the Prado Museum and the Paseo del Prado. Pretty much the rest of the stuff is around the Palace. So, as I mentioned before, the location of our apartment is fantastic.

Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor

We are about 3 blocks from the Plaza Mayor (one of the best known squares in the city). There are a ton of tourists here. This section is considered Old Madrid and has a concentration of the major sites of the city. I am looking forward to getting some good sleep tonight and then starting to explore Madrid tomorrow.

May 7, 2009

Today we walked down the Calle Mayor. This takes us past the Plaza Mayor, and then the Plaza de la Villa (which is the location of Madrid’s Town Hall). Continuing through the area behind the Town Hall, we saw a little church with a sign about it being dedicated to Spain’s Armed Forces. The exterior is pretty, but it doesn’t compare to the absolutely gorgeous interior. There is an incredible dome in the center of the church and the altars around the sides of the church are also quite beautiful.

Almudena Cathedral

Almudena Cathedral

After leaving this church, we started making our way to the Royal Palace area. Next to the Royal Palace is the Catedral de Almudena. It looks like it was built a long time ago, but it turns out that it was not finished until the 1990’s. One of the guide books that I brought actually describes this Cathedral as being very plain and boring. I could not disagree more strongly. I found the Cathedral to be just stunning. It is built in the Gothic style with all of the common Gothic arches and cruciform pattern to the church. The huge columns that go down the “spokes” of the cross have flat panel screens and Bose speakers attached to them (in the classic 14th Century Gothic style). They were piping in Gregorian style chanting and it just added so much to the atmosphere of visiting the cathedral. I was absolutely in love with this place (the beautiful churches started to become quite a theme in Madrid. We went into every one that we passed and they were all striking and beautiful – but more on each one later). We spent about 30 minutes inside the Cathedral.

Royal Palace

Royal Palace

After that, we walked across the way to the Royal Palace (Palacio Real). This palace is bigger than any palace that I have ever seen (and I have been to a few in France, England, Italy and Ireland). In reading about the construction, it turns out that the Bourbon monarchy specifically set out to build the biggest palace in Europe. I think they achieved that. The buildings are just magnificent. We got to do a miniature self-guided tour of the palace for €3.50. This included about 6 rooms of the Palace, the Spanish Royal Armory and the Royal Pharmacy. Much of this dates back to the middle of the 1700’s. I am not sure of the specific dates. The throne room was just over the top. Unfortunately, once again, photography was not permitted. Maybe the reason is to avoid the annoyance of having to wait for people to take their pictures. I am quick though, and try my best to never bother someone else. Oh well, I will just have to go by my memories.

In some of the areas of the Palace that were more exposed to the outside (like a courtyard), I did sneak a few photos, but there were just too many security people around to do it in the throne room.

The Armory was another very interesting thing. I usually do not get excited by seeing a bunch of weapons and such. But this was actually done in a very interesting manner and it was pretty cool to see the suits of armor that the Spanish armies wore in battle. They also had the shields and such that were designed for the royals. These, again, were just over the top and unbelievable. The decoration was incredible. Every detail include, such as the hair and the beard on the helmet. Or mythological scenes on a shield. Just incredible displays of art. I would totally use some of these in a decorative way.

The Pharmacy dates back to the 18th century as well. It is filled with vials and pots for the various herbs and such used in healing and treatment of the Royal family. I was expecting maybe a few dozen of such vials. There were actually hundreds and hundreds. There was a distillery as well. Again, considering that I did not expect much, I was truly surprised and really enjoyed this part of the Palace.

Finally, there was a special exhibit of the collection of Carlos IV. This included paintings, tapestries, furniture and a few other items that were collected by Carlos IV. Yet another thing in the Palace that I really enjoyed. All in all, the Palace was one of my favorite things that I did in Madrid.

At this point, we were getting pretty tired, so we got something to eat and then went back to the apartment to get some rest.

To be continued.

To see some of my photos from Madrid, click here.

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