Sunday, November 28, 2010

Paris and Spain: two of my favorite places...

The best time to travel to Europe is the beginning of October when the tourists have left and it is the “low” season. I always fly in and out of Paris as what better way to start a trip but in the “city of lights”.  I book a stay through parissweethome ( and choose the Alesia apartment on a cute little street, a 5 minute walk from the metro stop.  As I have been to Paris many times I like to take the train to somewhere new each year.  This year I went to Vaux Le Vicomte (, a castle built for Nicholas Fouquet in 1656.  It takes about one hour by train to get to Melun and another 10 minutes by bus or taxi to the castle.  Le Notre designed the beautifully crafted gardens and went on to design the gardens of Versailles. 

One of my favorite places to dine is Le Salon d’Helene Darroze ( where incredible tapa style dishes such as the foie gras de canard with fig chutney are served.  Daniel Rose’s Spring ( had a fabulous prix fixe menu, the sea bass wrapped in a green chard leaf being a highlight.

I left Paris on the overnight train to Barcelona where I “sat” in a reclining chair from 10 p.m. until arrival at 7:35 a.m. the next morning and slept very well indeed!!!  A 5 minute walk from the Francia train station was my delightful little hotel called la casa de marcelo .  From their window, I could see Cal Pep, the best tapas restaurant in town, but, desafortunadamente, being a Sunday it was closed!!!!  My last trip to Barcelona I missed seeing the Fundacio Miro (, located near the Parc de Montjuic so that is where I headed first, finding it easily by local bus.  After wandering through Miro’s masterpieces for 2 – 3 hours, I sat at the counter of Tellar de Tapas nearby and had a delicious little rocket salad with quince cubes, shaved goat cheese and toasted whole almonds and a small platter of crisp baby artichoke slices - yummy.

Gaudi’s Casa Batllo ( was next as I hadn’t seen it as yet and I find his works so whimsical.  My last stop was the La Sagrada Familia, an ongoing work also by Gaudi, which may never be finished but is breathtaking all the same.

In the morning I caught the train to San Sebastian arriving at 2 p.m. as the train was delayed.  San Sebastian is a delightful city with its famous playa de la concha.  Dinner at Urepel was rather old fashioned but the sautéed cepes with foie gras were exceptional. 

The next day I rented a car and drove to a little port city outside of town, took a ferry across to the other side and just wandered around until lunch time.  My 3 hour lunch at the famous three star Restaurant Arzak ( was one of the best meals of my trip.  The plates were small, very creative and delicious.  Elaine, who cooks with her father, came out to greet me and I was able to visit the kitchen after lunch.

On to Bilboa where I arrived about 8 p.m., parked my car and walked to the Guggenheim Museum.  It is so beautiful to see it at night reflected in the water.  In the morning I visited the old indoor market and then   the museum where there was a fabulous exhibition by Amish Kapoor (, the artist who created the cloud gate in Chicago as well as many other very impressive pieces displayed all over the world.

I drove to Santillana del Mar after a quick lunch at the Guggenheim Museum and was delighted with my spacious room at Parador Gils Bras (  Santillana del Mar is a small, tourist town but I found it charming.  I had dinner at Gran Duque Restaurant and was the only diner so had a delicious meal of fresh fish/salad and great service!! 

Nearby are the original caves of Altamira which have been closed to the public for many years.  I was able to visit the replica which was made in 2001 and gives you a good idea how the bison looked painted on the ceiling.  There is also a great prehistoric museum.  Afterwards, I stopped in the little town of Comillas nearby to visit El Capricho, charming summer home built by a young Gaudi in 1883. 

Gijon was my next stop as it was too far to drive all the way to Santiago de Compostela in one day.  I stayed at the delightful Casona de Cefontes (, one of many such casona all over Spain.  These are old, restored houses, 10 or 15 minutes from the center of town.  I had dinner at the Michelin starred La Solana ( where the pork short ribs with pineapple confit were succulent and the “pastel” oozed with rich chocolate.  The next afternoon I arrived in Santiago in pouring rain after a stop in Lugo, a very interesting walled city.

Santiago de Compostela ( is the Mecca for pilgrims who start a 780 km walk from St. Jean Pied de Port, France and walk for 6 – 8 weeks to Santiago.  They stay in albergues (hostels) along the way and carry all their belongings on their backs.  They have a card stamped each day to prove they are underway and arrive at the Cathedral in Santiago where they receive their Compostela, proof that they had made the pilgrimage.  I met three English ladies on the train to Paris who had completed this trek and thoroughly enjoyed hearing about their experience.

Santiago is an old, medieval city filled with churches, museums, quaint cobblestone streets, etc.  I spent two days wandering around the streets, in and out of churches, etc.  My most memorable meal was at Casa Marcelo ( where the food was incredible.  From the crab “cappuccino”, wild raw and cooked mushroom soup to the fresh coconut sorbet, the unique and wonderful dishes never wavered.

I drove back to San Sebastian, stopping in A Coruna to visit the lighthouse, Luarca to visit the port city and on to the Picos of Europa National Park, a beautiful side trip through lush countryside and gorgeous lakes.  

It was nice to have another whole day in San Sebastian before taking the train to Paris.  You can walk to the west end of La concha (the beach) and take a funicular up to the top of Mount Igeldo for a breathtaking view of the city.  Lunch at Bodegon Alejandro ( was a delicious last meal in Spain.  My favorite dish was large slices of sautéed cepes (mushrooms) served with a poached egg to dip them in!!!

Our train to Paris was delayed so I ended up with only an afternoon which I used to just wander the Latin quarter and soak in the atmosphere of this great city.  My final dinner was at a little French bistro called L’Ardoise ( where my lamb and crispy potatoes were expertly cooked and the chocolate tart was scrumptious!!!  A perfect ending to a “grand voyage”.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

San Francisco/Napa Valley

The Trip:
San Francisco is always a great city to visit as it houses great museums, restaurants and unique neighborhoods for wandering. I stayed at a great hotel called Crescent ( – centrally located and very reasonable.

Museums: The Asian Art Museum ( has a wonderful exhibit on Shanghai and their museum shop is always eclectic.  The De Young Museum ( is open late on Friday nights so, after a nice wander in golden gate park, I saw the birth of impressionism exhibit which is on loan from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.  The exhibit contrasts realism and impressionism in a very interesting way.

The Comtemporary Jewish Museum ( has an ongoing “exhibit”.  A trained female scribe is writing the entire text of the torah by hand and periodically is available to answer questions.  There are many rules regarding the quill, ink, paper, etc. which must be adhered to as well as the fact that each word must be spoken out loud before written.  Quite incredible!!!

Restaurants.I had lunch at A16 ( where I sat at the counter watching food being prepared and had a delicious thin crusted mushroom pizza. Sunday brunch was at their sister restaurant SPQR ( where I had a unique little burrata and pepperonata “salad”.  Dinners were at Nopa ( which included a delicious roast broccoli “salad” with fingerling potatoes, bacon and poached egg and Baker and Banker ( where the quail stuffed with quinoa and bacon was only exceeded by the XXX chocolate cake!!!

Yountsville.  I have always wanted to eat at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc Restaurant ( in Yountsville so I rented a car on Saturday and was on my way but not before visiting the Farmer’s Market at the ferry building in San Francisco.  On Saturdays from 8 a.m. – 1 p.m. vendors from all over the bay area come with fruits, vegetables, pastries, cheese, etc. to the ferry building to sell their wares.  Restaurants such as Rosa Pistola set up stands to serve pulled pork sandwiches, fried eggs and potatoes, espresso, pastries and breads of all kinds.  It is a wonderful place to have breakfast and browse with the view of the bay bridge always in sight.

Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen ( in St. Helena was my lunch stop and the rare tuna salad with nori and udon noodles was beautifully prepared and flavorful.  I wandered around St. Helena a bit and then drove into Yountsville where I stayed in a cute little room at the Bordeaux House (, walking distance from Ad Hoc.  Yountsville is filled with little shops and great restaurants such as Redd, Bouchon, Hurley’s, etc. so it was fun to just meander before dinner.  Dinner at Ad Hoc is prix fixe so there are no decisions to make.  However, if meat is on the menu as it was the night I dined there, a fish option is offered.   The menu was:  haricots verts salad with mini potato wedges, olives, prosciutto; halibut (or steak) with corn, peas, mushrooms and pea shoots; cheese course with pine nuts and honey and a little mini paris brest filled with praline cream – absolutely superb and the cost - $49 + tax and beverage – not bad for a Thomas Keller experience!!

When I return to San Francisco on my next trip I think I will take the ferry to Sausalito and eat at Avatar, an Indian Restaurant I have heard is quite wonderful.