Ah, San Sebastian! The beaches are pristine, the water is clear, and the mountains are green. I spent a very relaxing few days here recovering from my operatic adventure. I cruised on the ocean. I sat on the beach. I read my book. I ate lots of pintxos. The only sightseeing I did (on a rainy day) was visit the Museo San Telmo. It has very cool architecture—a daring, modern add-on to an old convent. It was also hosting an exhibit about the Italian filmmaker Pasolini. Among (many) other accomplishments, he directed Maria Callas is her only non-singing film role!
Combs of the Winds
Combs of the Winds
People fishing on Santa Clara Island
The proprietor ensured me that carousels are for adults, too
After getting through a frantic week of opera rehearsals and performances in Burgos (blog post coming soon), I rewarded myself with a trip to San Sebastian. This resort city on the northern coast of Spain is famous not only for its beautiful beaches but also for its excellent food at all levels, from pintxos (Basque tapas) to Michelin-starred restaurants. I splurged last night by getting the tasting menu at Bodegón Alejandro, a place I’d seen recommended in both the Michelin guide and the New York Times when I was planning this trip. It was definitely worth it.
The restaurant lies underground, down an unobtrusive staircase on a busy street of San Sebastian’s Old Town. It doesn’t look like much, with bare wood tables, plain decor, and a rather kitschy city view mural on the wall. But any doubts about my restaurant choice disappeared with the amuse-bouche—a shot of cold asparagus soup with paper-thin slices of crispy bread. The salty creaminess of the soup went perfectly with the crunchy, fire-blackened toast.
The first course of the tasting was also a definite hit. For this odd take on lasagna, cold marinated anchovies formed the pasta and vegetable ratatouille served as the filling. I love anchovies, and these were the freshest and tastiest I’ve had. The wine for the course, an organic local Txakoli Bengoetxe, was a new variety to me. It was smooth with a little tang, reminiscent of my favorite white (Greco di Tufo) and a good match for the dish. Continue reading Restaurant review: Bodegón Alejandro→
Late spring is a glorious time of year. The sun is out. Lots of roses in my neighborhood are in bloom. I can wear cute dresses every day. But to Germans, this season has a special significance. It’s not just late spring or early summer; it’s Spargelzeit.
Spargel is asparagus (usually the white variety), and Germans are a little bit crazy about it. The fruit and vegetable stands that dot downtown have been filled with it. Every restaurant proudly displays a special asparagus menu, with soups and salads and mains all centered on this white stalk. I don’t quite get it—I like asparagus, but not that much—but it’s fun to watch.
If you’re more of a fruit person, there’s still something for you. It’s also Erdbeerzeit (strawberry season). I do understand the strawberry craze; perfectly ripe, fresh strawberries are to die for. I keep buying baskets of strawberries with the intention of mixing the fruit with my muesli for breakfast, only to eat the whole basket on the way home!
After five days in Budapest, I find it hard to decide what I most associate with it. It’s different from almost any other major city I’ve visited. Part of the problem is that the city is big—Buda and Pest are each rather sprawling, so put them together, and you have a lot of city. But it’s a lot of awesome city. The architecture is varied, though in bad repair. The Jewish community is vibrant. The food is delicious and cheap. The nightlife revolves around super-hipster bars in crumbling old buildings. The flea markets are a dream come true. So I guess I’ll just give up any hope of putting this in a logical order, and instead try to talk about everything.
Beautiful buildings and views
Budapest is gorgeous, and the two halves are gorgeous in different ways. Buda is full of hills, with the white Matthias Church (with a very colorful roof) and the surrounding Fisherman’s Bastion sitting atop one of them. Pest is flat, but it has St. Stephen’s Basilica, the extraordinarily intricate Parliament building, and City Park (with a castle). Of course, both sides have lovely views of the Danube, and the famous chain bridge connects them.
Even the less photo-worthy areas are fascinating. Pest features a wide range of architectural styles, with neo-Gothic and neo-Renaissance banks and churches mixed in with Art Nouveau villas. (There are all the ugly Soviet-era buildings, too, but you can try to ignore them.) Many are in desperate need of repair, but I suppose that’s the natural consequence of your government being broke. Continue reading Budapest, city of everything→
I spent the last week travelling with my fellow Fulbrighter, Vicky. We devoted most of our vacation to Budapest (a blog post is on the way!), but we stopped over in Bratislava for a few days. Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, feels very small. Our tour guide told us that during the Soviet era, they essentially chose between Prague and Bratislava: one would be thoroughly modernised, while the other would be historically preserved. Bratislava got the short end of the stick (at least in terms of post-Soviet tourist revenue), so most of the old town was destroyed. Everything important in the city proper—the castle, the major museums, the prettiest buildings—can easily be seen in a day.
To start, the castle. We made the mistake of going inside. Don’t do it! There’s very little of interest there. But the outside is pretty, thanks to a recent rennovation project. And the views from the hill are fabulous. Also, there’s a playground!
This is what the castle looked like for nearly 200 years, since a fire in 1811. Rennovation was only just completed, in 2009 (photo: National Museum)
The Bratislava Castle
It turns out selfies are not the best way to show how good the view is, but you can see old town behind us. The Danube is out of view, but also very pretty from this elevation
The castle rennovation included some great night-time illumination
No castle visit would be complete without a silly attempt to mimic a statue
There’s also a playground in front of the castle!
Playgrounds at castles are the best kind of playgrounds
The city is very proud of its castle! This was just hanging over one of the main streets
This is part of my trilogy of posts about the Fulbright Berlin Seminar. See the first post for an introduction. This post is about the conference itself, including the socializing that happened around it.
After we arrived and checked into our hotels on Sunday, the conference offered us tours of Berlin. I chose one that focused on immigration and Islam. We visited the gorgeous Sehitlik Mosque, where a Muslim guide pointed out the architectural highlights and answered our questions about both the building and the religion. It was fascinating not only to hear her talk about Islam in Germany today, but also to see the wide range of my peers’ levels of knowledge about Islam. I was not very knowledgable, and I learned about core tenets of the religion and also about cool features of mosques. (I was especially intrigued by the niche that reflects sound back to the congregation so that the imam can face Mecca when he prays and still be heard by the people behind him.)
After a welcome dinner with far too much food and wine, we woke up on Monday morning for topic-based discussion panels. I was tasked with moderating the performing arts panel, where scholars who were researching (or simply attending a lot of) theater, opera, music, and dance shared their views. We talked about direction, funding, the experience of being a performer, the past and future of various media, and much more. The conversation was a bit all over the place (my fault, I suppose, given that I was supposed to be moderating), but often intriguing. One Italian scholar lives with an experimental theater company that brings art into public and private spaces as intimate as donated rooms in people’s homes!
As a thank-you for moderating, I was presented with the following mug. Look closely—you’ll spot a funny Germanism.
The best holiday of the year began last night. It’s not the best-known Jewish holiday, but it’s the one where everyone dresses up in costumes, reads a story in the silliest manner possible, eats lots of delicious cookies, and gets drunk: Purim!
The Beth Shalom community is fairly family-oriented, so we didn’t follow that final requirement, but we had a great party all the same. It began with the reading of the Megillah. American-style Purim Spiels (with, say, Beatles music or Broadway showtunes) aren’t a thing here—I got blank looks when I asked about it—but the reading was still fairly dramatized, with a few Hebrew songs thrown in. It was in German, but we pretended to be reading the Hebrew scroll. (The cantor sang the beginning and the end, and we had to do the rolling and unrolling.)