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→
May Week is a University of Cambridge tradition—a week of mad revelry that happens, as you definitely would not expect, in June. The highlights of the week are May Balls, elaborate and elegant all-night parties hosted by the colleges. Larger colleges throw balls every year, but the smaller colleges take turns. This year, my alma mater (Corpus Christi College) hosted. Additionally, two white tie balls were held. (Most are black tie.) Since neither of those things happened last year when I was a student at Cambridge, I had to return this year to take part! My week involved very little sleep but lots of alcohol and lots of fun.
I arrived in England on Monday afternoon to the news that a friend had an extra formal hall ticket at Christ’s College that evening. So I dashed to the college, luggage in tow (thank goodness for porters!), and arrived just in time for sherry, good food, half a bottle of wine, and port. Since I don’t drink much in Munich, that was quite the boozy start to my week. In other words, it was good training for what was to come! After a day of meeting up with friends who still live in Cambridge, the real partying started Tuesday night with the St. John’s College May Ball. All sorts of rumors circulate about this party: Time once ranked it the seventh-best party in the world. They keep a reserve fund to buy extra fireworks at the last minute so they can be sure to top Trinity College’s display. I have no clue whether either of those rumors is true, but it was certainly a perfectly elegant evening. We went from bumper cars to swing boats and from pop-rock to beautifully sung opera. I was well-fed with crepes, cheeses, scones, macarons, and pizza. Particular highlights included the fireworks display and the tea bar.
Sam and I, at the beginning of the evening
Collecting strawberries at the strawberries and Champagne reception
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!
My train to Hamburg was packed. Not just in the sense of “it sucks that you can’t find a seat for this six-hour, early-morning journey,” but in the sense of “no one can get to the bathrooms and also we’re not sure we can take on any more passengers, because the standing room is all taken.” We can partially blame this on the Deutsche Bahn strikes (fewer trains than usual were running), but apparently it’s mostly because I was heading to Hamburg just in time for one of their biggest events of the year: the Hafengeburtstag. That’s literally the “harbor birthday,” and ships from all over the world come to parade, race, and mingle. Of course, there’s also lots of fireworks and street food. (I ate plenty of herring—both raw and pickled—and Schmalzkuchen—fried balls of dough with powdered sugar.) So I threw most of my other plans for the weekend away and helped Hamburg celebrate its harbor’s birthday in style!
I had to take a picture of this boat for two reasons: (1) it shares a name with a Wagner opera, and (2) it was in Amsterdam (moored near the boat I stayed on) during King’s Day! I theorize that it’s just travelling from party to party
The wheel of a beautiful military sailing ship from 1933
The rigging of the Gorch Fock
I love the name of this ship!
Not all the ships were pretty or old…
A recreation of a ship from 1703
The ridiculous masthead of the 1703 ship
Steering the ship!
A carved dolphin (?) on the staircase of the 1703 ship
I love the green sails
Hamburg’s Captain San Diego is on the move
But the Captain San Diego isn’t driving itself
Aboard the museum ship Rickmer Rickmers
A rescue demonstration: this ship “caught fire,” and a helicopter came to help
The fire boats also came
Why only use one helicopter when you can use two? This one actually lowered a sling and lifted some people who had “fallen overboard” into the helicopter
A big fireworks show ended the day
The other main tourist attraction I managed to get to was Miniatur Wunderland, the world’s largest model railway. It’s impressive for its sheer size, and it also does a good job of conveying the overall differences in terrain and architecture between the represented regions (Switzerland, Austria, Hamburg, the fictional German town of Knuffingen, Bavaria, Middle Germany, America, and Scandanavia). It has an airport, concert halls, soccer stadiums, a space shuttle, UFOs, ships, and lots and lots of trains. There are also some fun Easter eggs in the tiny figures—everything from an elephant pulling a steamroller to a man bungee jumping from construction equipment.
Brussels was all shiny and wide-boulevard-ed like the European capital it was built to be, but small-town Belgium is very different. Much more like small-town Germany, in fact: very medieval. I spent a day each in Gent and Bruges, looking at pretty old buildings (though most of them in Gent are reconstructions), climbing far too many stairs to reach the top of belfries, and watching lace be made.
Gent is not exactly a tourist destination, except during its annual music festival. The town history explanations in the belfry, for instance, are only in Flemish. (Yes, German speakers can decipher Flemish with sufficient effort. But I didn’t want to give myself a headache in the morning.) So I took a tour, which mostly focused on old buildings, plus the occasional off-beat sight (check out a grafitti lane and the Design Museum toilets in the photo gallery below). I learned that Gent was once the second-largest city in Europe (in the 13th century, that is) because of its textile industry. I also made a friend from Mexico. (Credit for any photos with me in them goes to Nora!) At our guide’s suggestion, we went to the House of Alijn museum, which offers glimpses of life in past centuries and decades. It was kitschy but cute, though I thought there was too little about past centuries and too much about the different decades of the 20th century.
Saint Nicholas’ Church
Town Hall (neo-Renaissance facade)
Town Hall (neo-Gothic facade)
A retired dragon who used to sit atop the belfry
A lion chilling in the belfry
The bell Roland
The music-box-like mechanism for the belfry chimes
View of the old opera house from the belfry
View of the church from the belfry
Atop the belfry tower
Angels dancing on top of a building
Inside St. Nicholas’ Church
Inside St. Nicholas’ Church
Gravensteen—a castle very much in the middle of the city
Medieval decoarted facades indicating the profession and faith of the inhabitant
Jacob van Artevelde, the hero who saved the Gent textile industry
A grafitti lane (where grafitti is permitted)
In front of the old opera house
Classic view of three towers
Pretty facades above a pretty river
The bathroom of the Design Museum
The old fish market gate
Inside a recreated pharmacy in the House of Alijn museum
Inside a recreated barber’s shop in the House of Alijn museum
Gent had two highlights for me other than the views. One was Quetzal, a chocolate bar near the university that is decidedly not for tourists. (Sign of this: no English menu.) They don’t do fancy pralines, just chocolate. Pure melted chocolate at the darkness level of your choice, mixed with milk and spices. (I had super-dark chocolate with chili.) Fondue with bread or fruit. Brownies. Pieces of chocolate. I had all of the above. It was amazing. The other highlight was my lovely Couchsurfing host, Nadia. She took me to a salsa club and ensured that some of the leads she knew there danced with me! It’s been a long time since I danced salsa, and she showed me up because she was amazing. But I had fun anyway, even though my legs were tired from all that stair-climbing. Continue reading Medieval Belgium→
Germany is wonderfully centrally located in Europe. One of my travel strategies this year is visiting the major Germany city closest to the border of the country I’m on my way to. For my current Belgium and Holland trip, that’s Cologne (or Köln, in German). I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it’s not a pretty city. 90% of it was destroyed by bombs in WWII, so the Altstadt is essentially non-existent. But there are a lot of interesting things in the city, and I could easily have filled several more days with sightseeing. I was unfortunately there on a Monday, so most museums were closed. If I go back, I’d love to visit the National Socialism Documentation Center, the Ludwig Museum, and of course the Chocolate Museum. I’d also like to see the botanical gardens and the Melaten Cemetery.
Some of the prettiest buildings in Cologne—like the main synagogue, here—are under construction
I loved this gargoyle on a church I passed
I have no clue what this is (probably a church), but it was a rare beautiful building, so I took a picture
The St. Agnes Church is pretty
Cologne had a huge street art exhibition a while back. This creepy remnant lives on someone’s balcony
This winged, golden Ford Fiesta is another relic of the street art exhibition
A memorial to those who resisted National Socialism
Since eau de Cologne is what most people associate with the word “cologne,” several companies like to claim precedence. But despite 4711’s aggressive marketing, I think Farina is in the right here. (It also smells better)
The town hall’s tower includes several rude statues (mostly of figures mooning passers-by). This was supposedly the masons’ revenge for bad treatment by the local government
That said, I don’t have any regrets about how I spent what little time I had in the city. I got in Sunday evening, so I quickly dropped off my luggage and queued for student tickets to a play. This wasn’t just any play; it was the first-ever stage version of the famous 1920s German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. (No, I haven’t seen it either.) The theatre company employed a lip-reader to transcribe what dialogue s/he could, then built a script around that. The result was extraordinarily strange. Its monochrome sets recalled its black-and-white origins. It seemed uncertain what balance to strike between talking and silence—the main character (Cesare) often told stories as expressive dances. It was decidedly non-naturalistic, with exaggerated movements and extreme make-up. It was intentionally alienating, with video close-ups of actors’ faces offering alternative reactions to onstage events. A heavy metal band provided sound effects and filled in the transitions. I’m glad I saw it, because I felt like it taught me a lot about German expressionism, a movement I previously knew nothing about. It lacked the emotional punch of the best psychological horror, but it definitely had suspense. The actors executed the strange style well. I don’t feel qualified to review it more than that, because I suspect much of the interest of the production lies in its imitation versus innovation of the original source material. I’ll need to watch the film before I can form an opinion on that score. Continue reading Cologne in a day→
Last night was the first night of Pesach! I spent Wednesday scrubbing my kitchen and oven, and I gave away all my chametz, so I was very prepared. My synagogue held a first-night Seder, and of course I attended. My mom asked me to report back on what was different, but the answer is really: not much. We went through all the prescribed steps. We (well, the children) walked around the room to “cross the red sea”. We opened the door to call for Elijah. We even sang some songs in English (like the song about the four children to the tune of “Clementine”). The rabbi actually gave me a surprise solo—he asked me to sing “My Favorite Things” with the lyrics re-written for Pesach. It went over well.
In traditional fashion, I got pretty drunk on my four full glasses of wine. (I had a bottle to myself, and I finished it.) But I learned that I possess two very important life skills. First, I can still carry on decent conversations in English, German, Italian, and Spanish after a bottle of wine. (We have a very international community at Beth Shalom.) Second, even when I am drunk, I can remember and sing all of Chad Gadya without getting tongue-tied. No one else was singing Chad Gadya, so it ended up being a second, unsolicited solo, but at that point I was too tipsy to care.
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