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Chicago — Part 1

We’ve been talking about it for years but someplace else always came first. Usually someplace European. Last year the arrival of our daughter Arya caused our travel plans to be come a lot more domestic in nature so we finally planned our trip to Chicago.

We rented an apartment through AirBNB that was in the Northcenter area but within walking distance of a Brown Line metro stop to the Loop. The apartment is great: spacious and very child friendly. Lots of toys and books for Arya to use. And the neighborhood is quiet but has lots of good restaurants near by.

Our first night we had a late dinner at a place called Mrs. Murphy & Sons Irish Bistro which had a great beer selection (Two Brothers for me) and excellent food. Arya was still on Seattle time, but since it’s two hours later in Chicago, it’s actually working out pretty well for us. She doesn’t mind being out until 10 and gets up at a reasonable 7 o’clock.

We started our first full day by taking the el to the Willis (Sears) Tower to take in the spectacular view. Let me just pause a moment here to sing the praises of the City Pass. I debated the necessity of getting them, but since we were planning on seeing at least three of the attractions anyway and could easily be talked into seeing the others it was a no brainer. And it proved it’s worth the first day by allowing us to skip the hour to hour and half wait in line to get to the observation deck.

The view was pretty great and Arya had a fine time running from window to window and even stepped out onto the skybox with no problems.

Arya on The Ledge

That was the high point (pun absolutely intended) of the day. The low point came a few hours later when we were on the Sea Dog Architecture River Boat Tour in an open boat. That’s when the sky opened up and we were drenched through to the bone. Arya was a little trooper and hardly complained at all. Even if we hadn’t got soaked I don’t think the tour would have been as great as we were led to believe. This is probably because we didn’t go on the Architecture Foundation tour, which wanted to charge us $30 for Arya. Sea Dog only charged us a dollar for her.

After our drenching we decided to cut the day short and head home to dry off which was just fine because I’d had about all of the Navy Pier experience I needed (think Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco only bigger).

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Distilling Portland

Last weekend Irene and I took a trip down to Portland to see Jethro Tull who were playing a concert on the lawn at our favorite hotel, The Edgefield. We always have a great time in Portland and usually discover something new every time we go.

This time it was all about the booze. There are many fine craft distilleries and five of them are in what is known as Distillery Row. Four of them are within 12 blocks of each other and can be done on foot (recommended). The fifth is a little bit further away (and a bit hard to navigate to). We had a very good time and bought way too much by way of booze. My favorite of which was an experimental concoction from House Spirits which, to me, tasted and smelled like wort. The ginger rum from Deco Distilling was also noteworthy. We also paid a visit to Clear Creek Distillery, which is not part of Distillery Row, but is still well worth a visit.

And no trip to Portland is complete without hitting a brewery or two. This time we had lunch at Hopworks Urban Brewery where we partook of a flight of all their offerings. Big fans of their brews. Also, quite by accident we stumbled across the Cascade Brewing barrel house. They have an impressive collection of sour beers (an acquired taste that I am slowly developing an appreciation for). The taps rotate quite frequently so check it out next time your in town.

Portland is very much a foody town and we managed to have some great meals as well. Of note were The Waffle Window and the Laurelhurst Market. Both highly recommended.

I’ve posted a few more pictures from our trip here (some are from previous trips as well).

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Of Madrid and the end

Three museums in three days. Very doable.

Last night after rolling in on the AVE from Segovia we wasted little time in heading to the Prado as it was free after 16:00 and closed at 20:00. The book warned of massive crowds any time the museum was free but it was very manageable.

Seeing that time was short we headed for the important stuff first. The Goya, the Velázquez, the El Greco, with a few Titians and Ruebens thrown in for good measure.

Today we hit the Thyssen-Bornemisza for the more modern art. A very enjoyable museum which held a few discoveries for me.

Tomorrow we will go to the Reina Sofía. And the the day after that we head home.

As sad as it is to end our time in Spain, it will be good to get back home to familiar things. Plus I’m sure the kitties will be glad to see us.


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Salamanca and Segovia

It has decided to rain on us for the rest of our trip. This is sad but we are making the best of it. If it starts to really come down we duck into a cathedral or a museum or, you know, as a last resort, a bar.

Here we are in Segovia and the rain has started to play an on and off game with us. The three hour bus from Salamanca, not a drop of rain. As soon as we were settled and heading out to see the town a serious downpour started.

So we had a little vino tinto while it blew over. Then as we strolled down towards the aquaduct started again. Now we are in a bar for a caña (small beer) while the latest bout blows over. Irene keeps trying to order something other than beer and is utterly failing to communicate her desires. She will say the word to be greeted with a blank stare. She will then write it down and they will say “ah!” and repeat it back to her almost exactly as she said it. Sometimes in think they are just messing with us.

Here are some random observations about Spain:

•The bread is mostly terrible.
•Everything comes with a side of fries.
•If it doesn’t come with fries it has canned tuna in it.
•Vegetables are sold at the markets but this is just for show. You can’t actually get any at a restaurant.

Tonight we feasted on suckling pig (a speciality in the region). We have discovered it is shockingly easy to polish off a bottle of wine with dinner.

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The triumphant return of gelato flavors of the day: for me it was a bit of a departure from my cafe safe-zone. I tried a queso, which I would compare favorably to cheesecake only more tangy, and a rice pudding, which was very good. Irene had cocunt and whiskey which she reports as bieng “tasty”.

Our time in Bilbao was brief but sufficient. We rolled into town in the afternoon and, after a brief respite at our hotel, set out for a stroll around the old town. We stopped into a bar for pintxos and a caña (small beer) and then more strolling. We came across an unexpected bagpipe band which had the whole street singing. We had dinner at a local bar and then to bed.

The next morning found us early at the Guggenheim, Gehry’s architectual masterpiece, in what was clearly Seattle weather sent here to cool us off and remind us of what we’ve missing back home. The current exhibits were a Rosseau collection, which demonstrated that he is known despite his lack of skill as a draftsman, and Rauschenberg who is known for reasons that entirely escape me.

We did both, however, enjoy the works of Anish Kapur. Creator of the Magic Bean in Chicago (or as it is officially known, Cloud Gate). One installation that was a lot of fun was a big air cannon that would shoot buckets of red wax against the corner. Every so often a man would enter the room, load up the cannon and, with a loud bang, fire. He would then exit the room where he would joke with the guards about his aim.

We bused it from Bilbao to San Sebastian in the afternoon. Not much to say about San Seb. It’s a pretty little city on the Bay of Biscane and we spent a pretty lazy day there hanging out by the beach and generally just resting. Oh yeah, we did have some ice cream (see above).

Today we hopped the commuter train to French Basque country in the guise of St-Jean-de-Luz. I tried to make the switch to French seamlessly but outed with a few “si”s and “dos”s and “gracias”s. The woman behind the ticket counter laughed at me.

All day I would revert to Spanish. After two and a half weeks of “gracias” I’m running on autopilot. When we get back to Spain I’ll probably say “merci”. Oy.

When we arrived St-Jean was a quiet, sleepy little town but by late in the afternoon it was alive with tourists.

Tuesday is market day, and for my money French markets are the best in Europe by a wide margin. We were seduced right away by a stinky cheese vendor and picked up a wedge of soft Brie-like goat cheese. And once we had that we had to pick up some meat (chorizo), bread (some kind of corn bread with sunflower seeds), fruit (strawberries) and dessert (gâteau de basque with a cream center). Picnic by the beach? Yes!

There’s not a whole lot to see of St-Jean so we spent a good deal of time hanging out in cafés drinking wine (or in Irene’s case, Kir and wine). During our second café stop we were driven inside when the sky that had been threatening all day finally opened up.

Due to a slight mix up about the bus schedule, no need to apportion blame, we were darting from awning to overhang on a soppy dash to the bus station. Fortunately we could take a bus to Hendaye and from there catch a train back to San Sebastian. Where it was also drizzling.

We catch a late night train to Salamanca tonight were we will get in way too early for anything to actually be open. Not sure what we are going to do when we get there. No baggage check in the train station, only in the bus station which is nowhere near by. Should be fun. I’ll let you know what happens.

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