Monday, October 31, 2011

Madrileño Arte y Comida

The museums in Madrid knocked my socks off-I was literally retracing my steps in the Prado Museum searching among the masterpieces for my lost socks.  The Prado, filled with great works by Spanish masters such as El Greco, Velasquez, and Goya, also amazed me with its collection of foreign art, including Titian, Bosch, and Fra Angelico (complete with a Fiesole shout-out!).  I had never learned much about Spanish art, aside from Picasso's Guernica and Velasquez's Las Meninas in high school Spanish class, but I finally got to see those two paintings plus much more over the course of the week.  Other than those, my favorites were from Goya's Black Paintings, including Saturn Devouring His Son and Two Old Men Eating Soup.

In addition to the Prado, I went to the Reina Sofia (modern art + Guernica), the Thyssen-Bornemisza (private collection from primitive Italian art to modern pop art), the Caixa Forum (revolving exhibitions currently showing Delacroix and Teotihuacan), and even stumbled upon an exhibition of Dutch artist René Daniëls (think lots of bowties) in Retiro Park.

The other most enjoyable part of Spanish culture for us was the food, which can of course be considered an art in and of itself.  Shawn and I discovered a tapas place in La Latina called Casa Lucas that we adored and ended up dining at twice!  The croquetas melted on our tongues and the extravagant ahi tuna was delicious.

Ever wondered about the origin of tapas?  Apparently innkeepers in bygone years, concerned about drunken pilgrims and journeymen traveling through their villages, began putting a "lid" (tapa) of bread with a slice meat or cheese atop their glass of beer or wine.  Not only did it keep the bugs out, but it kept people from drinking on an empty stomach.  And today, the concept is much the same, only the execution has become much more sophisticated!

Another interesting factoid I learned is that Corona beer is called Coronita in Spain in reverence to the royal crown.  Incredible!

My favorite place for breakfast became an old cafe in Puerta del Sol called La Mallorquina, where I always ordered a café solo (espresso) and a sweet bread with jamón inside. 

I learned that there's a law there requiring restaurants to offer a set priced menu of the day for workers unable to go home for lunch.  We sure profited from those deals, finding three-course meals, drinks included, for 10-16 euro.  What a steal!  

In Shawn's neighborhood of Chueca we explored the great new market building with chic stands ranging from sushi to Greek to gourmet hamburguesas. 

On my final night in Madrid, God blessed us by having us happen upon the Jamón Fair in Plaza Mayor.  We payed a set price for a plate of jamón serreno and two small beers (cañas) and got to take our pick from at least 15 different stalls of farms slicing their own jamón.  We were both giddy with excitement (I think our friendship is 75% based on our mutual foodie tendencies), and we gobbled down our jamón before continuing on.

What a delicious week!  When I got back Jadwiga the housekeeper said she thought I'd lost weight.  I laughed at her and told her it simply couldn't be true-I must just look really satisfied!

Sunday, October 30, 2011


It's going to take several entries to do my week in Madrid any justice.  Spending time with Shawn was of course the highlight, and then on top of that I also had a beautiful city to explore.  Our first day was spent mostly orienting me with the main sites in the city, enjoying Retiro Park, and later going to Teatro Kapital.  Here's some cute shots from the park, including the Crystal Palace.

Madrid doesn't really have one major landmark that people associate with the city; there aren't any leaning or Eiffel towers, but there are lots of beautiful plazas and ornate buildings (most of which have elaborate balls or spires or towers or even gazebos on the roof, thus earning my nickname of "the city with the cherry on top").  The most famous of the plazas is the multi-functional Plaza Mayor, where there are performers, festivals and markets, and in olden days even bullfights and executions.  An interesting fact is that the burgundy color of the buildings surrounding the plaza was chosen democratically in a public vote-Spain has become extremely democratic since the fall of Franco, and this plaza is a simple example of just how far-reaching the changes have been.

Here's the front room of Shawn's cute apartment-his Spanish roommate is a painter and the whole place is covered with his fun artwork.  The space itself is very colorful with brightly painted doors, and the front balcony opens up onto one of the main piazzas in Shawn's neighborhood, Chueca. 

Shawn and I took many midnight (and beyond) strolls of Madrid, and one of the prettiest places after dark was the complex including the Cathedral, Palacio Real, and Plaza de Oriente. 

Madrid's palace, considered one of the absolute best in Europe, far exceeded the splendor I was anticipating.  I toured the palace one day and was overwhelmed by the plush Rococo interior and rich embellishments.  It's really no wonder Spain experienced such a rapid decline-the king was too busy having decorative ceilings guilded, Venitian chandeliers delivered, and extravagant armor forged.  I also got to witness the palace band performing in the courtyard, and the changing of the guard at noon.

One of the other most beautiful churches I saw was San Jeronimo El Real, which is on a small hill right behind the incredible Prado museum (more on Madrid's art scene later).  The interior is unmemorable, but it sure is striking from the outside!

Perhaps the most random thing I visited while in Spain was the Temple of Debod, an Egyption temple complete with hieroglyphics, that had been donated and literally transplanted to Spain several decades ago as a thank you gift for humanitarian help.  It is situated in a lovely park that overlooks a valley with views of the cathedral and Palacio Real. 

Here's a couple more shots of Madrid's cherries, for your enjoyment:


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Teatro Kapital

Madrid's nightlife literalizes the phrase "Go big or go home."  Coming from a country where bars and clubs start flashing lights and tunneling you out on the streets at 1:30am, imagining a continuous all-night party seemed not only unconventional, but impractical.  How do Spaniards manage to dance the night away, and still awake at a (semi-) regular hour to commence their normal lives?  We haven't figured that one out yet.

One of the things Shawn and I had been most looking forward to when I visited was going out to Teatro Kapital, the biggest club in town.  It boasts seven stories and multiple different kinds of music, and boy did it deliver ten-fold.  There were even sponsored themed bars, one all-blue for Bombay Sapphire, and another highlighted with bright green for Bacardi mojito. 

After standing in line for the wrong club for half an hour like a couple of idiots, we made it to the proper Kapital entrance and decided to start from the top and work our way down.  We grabbed our mojitos and made it up to the rooftop terrace, replete with fountains, chic lighting, and lounges.  After some fresh air there, it was time to make our way down...

From that point on the night was a whirlwind of reggaeton, hip hop and house, staircases, a Native American drummer, Beyonce, people-watching, scantily-clad dancers, confetti cannons and air blasts, and the most perfect song ever to end a night to: No Scrubs by TLC.  It was so nice to have the time to just enjoy the progression of the night and not feel like we had to rush rush rush to see and enjoy it all quickly.

So many things throughout the night made us think of all our other friends, and we kept saying, "If this is fun, imagine what it would be like with everybody!" We continued making our way through the different rooms enjoying the music and shows and crazies, and still before I knew it Shawn was saying we should get going because it was well after 5am! We grabbed a kebab for the walk home and crashed some time after six. I never thought I'd make it that long without falling asleep on the dancefloor, but now I can't wait to do it again!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Brunello, Santi, e Formaggio

Friday's Italian field trip found us in the region of Val D'Orcia, within Tuscany.  We popped into Montalcino for a quick coffee break and tour of the town.  I'd never been before, but as it is the birthplace of Brunello, one of my favorite wines, I made a point of sampling a couple in an enoteca despite my watch's report of the hour being 10am. 

Next we moved on to Sant'Antimo, an abbey that I have most certainly blogged about since it was my third visit.  This time was perhaps my favorite, as we received a special explanation and tour of the grounds by Fra Dominique, a French friar living at the abbey. The church, located in the middle of the picturesque Tuscan countryside, has an aura of simplicity and tranquility that can settle anyone's agitations. 

The friar showed us around the sacred abbey, and even brought us up to the second, surrounding floor of the structure for a complete tour.  Sunlight was pouring in from all windows, shrouding the church in ethereal light.  We stayed to hear four of the abbey's friars chant mass.

In the afternoon, we enjoyed a stroll around Pienza, the "perfect" renaissance town built by Pope Pius II, and around the corner from Via Dell'Amore, I enjoyed a full glass of Brunello this time.

Later, we went (for me, returned) to Ernello's peccorino cheese farm, learned (again) about the process of cheese production, and sampled (some more) of his delicious cheeses.  Aside from the olive oil, which I have purchased from him in the past, my favorite delicacy was the ricotta cheese, which he suggested we enjoy with sugar (and I hastened to add honey).

The only pitfall to our lovely day was our unpleasant bus driver, Giuseppe, who insulted my eating habits, corrected my Italian, grew furious when we ran 30 minutes behind schedule, and turned down Ernello's cheesy peace offering because "this is the stuff you feed to dogs."  But hey, no day can be perfetto, right?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Waking Up To Bologna

Chicchirichì!  That's the sound Italian roosters make, and the sound I imagined hearing when I woke up each morning this beautiful weekend in Bologna.  I spent the first day with Kevin, enjoying Bolognese food (maccheroncini con salsiccia e porcini) and gelato from Castiglione (pistacchio e cioccolato, what else?) and paying yet another visit to my favorite Santo Stefano to marvel at the incalculable seven churches and the stunning mosaic tiles.

That evening I joined Alessandro (the Alessandro that was Shawn's roommate next door when we all lived together in our own Italian version of the series Friends) at his apartment and met all his new roommates in all their quintessential Bolognese student glory.  Despite being nothing like any of them, they made me feel right at home!  Azzurra, Alessandro, and Francesco came to join us and we ordered pizza, caught up, and later walked around the city for a bit.

Saturday was a big shopping day spent at the Montagnola market trying not to get robbed or arrested for yelling at people for personal space violations.  In the evening, we spent an aperitivo talking about ghosts and spirits and life after death, which all got very complicated not on account of conversing with Italians, but with atheists.  Later on, we passed by a bar with a live rock cover band to see Federica and Vittorio, and despite a guy spilling my wine all over me, we had fun enjoying Italians recreating Prince and other wonders of the music world.

Bologna looked as stunning as ever and Piazza Maggiore sottle le stelle took my breath away.  All weekend, as usual, I was dealing with a serious bout of nostalgia, missing friends no longer in Bologna, wishing I still lived there, reveling in my countless memories and having difficulty suppressing a sort of Singing in the Rain comical smile.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

San Miniato

I have officially found my favorite church in Florence (it took me long enough)!  Originally a pilgrimage church, the Romanesque San Miniato hovers over Florence, welcoming people to the city.  The beautiful mosaics over the alter remind me of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome (another favorite) and the views of Florence from this vantage point are spectacular.  I'm excited to go sometime soon to the evening vespers mass, which is predominantly sung aloud. 


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Gleeful Graduation

A couple weeks ago, Letizia flew home from Paris to deliver her thesis in Siena, and she graduated with "110 e lode" which basically translates to A++, or Freakin' Awesome Job. 

Since many of her friends couldn't make it to Siena on a Wednesday (Italy chooses weird days for graduations) she hosted a brunch at her house in Pisa right before leaving for the airport.  I was so happy to be able to be with Leti around this special occasion-she's been buried under this thesis basically for as long as I've known her!  It was also great to see her family, her dog Mira, and to meet more of her friends.

Leti made lots of delicious things, including shrimp with avocado dip and curry chicken.  As a present, some of her friends gave her a microphone karaoke set with a book of lyrics from Glee songs, which we promptly began using as props for some fun photos.  Here's a cute one of me and Leti singing TLC's "No Scrubs", our favorite duet.  Leti will have to bring the microphones to the villa next time so we can officially start our A Cappella duo.