On our first day in Madrid, we left our rented apartment, turned a corner and came upon a long line of people snaking out of a building. I’m always curious about lines that form, and what is so worth waiting for, but during the day, in the excitement of a new city, I sort of forgot about it. Until we returned in the early evening and there was still a line, even longer. Every time we passed that corner, no matter what time of day, there was always a significant gaggle of people waiting. After a few days, my curiosity got the better of me and I noted the name of the shop to look up when we got home. It turned out that this shop is Casa Hernanz, a cordeleria and alpargateria, and basically the place to get alpargatas, which you may know as espadrilles, in Madrid. They make them traditionally, by hand, and they are also very affordable, just 8 euros for the simplest pairs. The shoes that are available are all up in the windows so that you can choose the espadrilles you’d like to try before you get inside and maybe take photos to show the sales people. Once you’ve made it past the line, you head straight to the counter and ask for what you’d like, and in what size (it’s a good idea to know your European size in Spanish) and they pull from the back. You can try them on and then choose your pairs. Casa Hernanz makes the more simple gatas, but they also carry trendier designs and fabric patterns made by a few other Spanish brands that also make the shoes traditionally. They are simple shoes (e.g. no cushy insoles, and some don’t even come with a designated left and right foot) but fun, colorful, perfect for summer, and a great souvenir to bring back from Spain! Casa Hernanz, at Calle de Toledo, 18, is open for most the the day, but they do close for a few hours in the afternoon for siesta.
I read that it’s actually a myth that London is rainier than other places- in reality it is roughly as rainy as most other European cities, with only slightly more days of rain (110 per year) and actually less total inches per year (24 inches) than cities like Rome or Toulouse. However, London did her best to keep up the soggy reputation during our visit. The first week was quite warm for October- and rainy, and the second week shaped up to be pretty frigid for October-and rainy. (We had two gorgeously sunny days the first week which I feel very lucky for.) I ended up doing quite a bit more sightseeing than I did 12 years ago as is usually the case when visiting instead of living in a city. At St. Paul’s Cathedral, after a wander around the lovely gardens, I marveled at the interior, and then began a long, winding trip up three different staircases to the gallery at the very top of the cathedral. Once up to the first gallery, looking down into the cathedral below, you can continue on to two further outdoor galleries. Here, the staircases are single file, and there is no going back, even if you want to! No panicking allowed! I wish I had a photo of the various staircases, so narrow that not only was it single file, but some people wouldn’t fit at all, and so low that even I had to duck, but as I have hints of claustrophobia and fear of heights, it was touch and go for a bit, and there wasn’t a chance of taking my hand off the handrail to use a camera. The views were worth it.
I walked by the apartment building I lived in, and a few old haunts, which felt remarkably the same, while still being quite changed, toured Selfridge’s for the first time, visited Westminster Abbey, had a good laugh at the much-lauded play “One Man, Two Guvnors”, that had gone from the National Theater to Broadway and back to London. The National Gallery was a worthwhile stop, not least because it is one of the few things in London that is free. We tried to eat every “traditional” British meal we could think of, which included two Indian “curry” dinners, Thai food on Brick Lane, fish and chips, a full English breakfast, sausage and mash at a pub, lots of tea, and at home, beans on toast, and grilled cheese with some great English cheddar. We also had Sunday roast at a local pub. Sunday lunch is a tradition in many European countries, a reason for family to gather and have a meal, usually roasted meat of some kind, on Sunday afternoon. In England, this includes a slice or two of meat, 2 veg, potatoes and a Yorkshire pudding, and most pubs that do food have it on offer. The closest pub to our rental, The Carpenter’s Arms, happens to have been first owned by infamous gangsters in the area, the Kray brothers, whom we first heard about watching the grisly British drama “Whitechapel”. Here, you can see a photo of the pub in the late 60’s, below is the pub now. One of the most exciting things about visiting a city like London is the way such a long and varied history rubs up against the present.
Now, with new owners, it’s a cozy spot to come in from the cold and have a delicious lunch before repairing home for tea and biscuits.
I have only one regret about the month we spent in Nantes, and that is that we didn’t get a chance to make a second trip to the seashore. Nantes, although very nautical in feeling and surrounded by rivers, is actually an hour by train from the ocean, the Bay of Biscay. There are several seaside stops on the train, including La Baule, a very large, very popular beach, but we chose Le Croisic, I think because Lonely Planet mentioned there would be boats. Indeed, the seaside town had a very nice harbor dotted with vessels. The road was lined with restaurants touting fresh seafood, gift shops and ice cream stalls, and the side streets rewarded wanderers with more little shops, lovely churches and quaint scenes. We followed the harbor all the way to the point, along docks lined with fishermen-grizzled old professionals and vacationing kids and parents alike- scooping nets of crabs out of the water. We saw several enormous jellyfish quickly and delicately swimming by. After passing through a benefit party for the local lifeguards and ocean rescue crew which provided ambient bagpipe and other Celtic music, we came upon a just-big-enough lighthouse. On the other side a small, uncrowded beach lined not with sand, but the larger “pebbles” (rocks, stones, shells) you find on some beaches. This beach was extremely tough on unaccustomed feet.
What I liked best about Le Croisic was that it was busy, as any seaside town is during the summer, but not too crowded. It was just right and perfect for a sunny summer’s Saturday.
A vertical garden on a storefront in Nantes, complete with iconic “Soldes” sign (twice yearly sales occurring in June and July)
We are spending a week and a half in Nantes, in the Loire River Valley on the Western coast of France. There is a good chance we will have to spend more time here, and I have to say I don’t mind one bit; it’s the kind of city in which you feel you could pass some time. It is the 6th largest city in France, and as such, feels like the perfect city for visiting. There are just enough things to do to fill a few weeks, but not so much that you feel overwhelmed by choice. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from, with cuisines from all over the world, and in all price ranges, and there seems to be quite a nightlife, although I don’t know firsthand because I have somehow come to the age where my kind of nightlife is a walk along the quay. It is a very young city, with 2/3 of its population under the age of 40, and there is also a large University. Originally part of Brittany, it separated politically in 1789, but is still very Breton in culture. The city is located at the confluence of three rivers, the Loire, the Erdre and the Sèvre and in the past it was a hub for shipbuilding and transport.
The European Commission named Nantes the 2013 European Green Capital for its public transportation (a tramway system, and a bike share program), lowering CO2 and other emissions and its large green spaces.
The architecture is a fascinating blend of ancient, Belle Epoque, Art Deco and Art Nouveau. There is quite a tourism push in the city, and the tourism board has come up with quite an ingenious happening each summer called Le Voyage à Nantes. This is a path (literally, a green line painted on the sidewalk which I found helpful before I even knew what it was) that leads from one cultural or historical stop to the next. They have brought these sites into the pulse of the modern city by inviting artists to create pieces at each stop. From the website (translated somewhat intriguingly from the French): “Art invades Nantes, lending the town that unique quality the Surrealists loved of a living city, where the unexpected can leap out at you from every corner.” The juxtaposition between the old and the new and the blending of art forms, seems perfect for this artistic, quirky and historic city.
Art Deco office building turned into apartments
|Strait of Gibralter and Spain beyond|
We were met with mint tea in glasses with colorful patterns and almond cookies. I am truly impressed by the variety of flavors and textures possible in almond cookies. The patio featured a veritable jungle of potted plants, ranging from roses to potted palms to small pots of mint, creating a lush, peaceful feel. The ocean spread before us like a rippling quilt, variegated with strands of green and blue, the currents of the Mediterranean and Atlantic blending but not quite mixing. Since Ramadan began two weeks ago, we haven’t had anything to eat or drink outside the house during daytime, so it was very nice to be able to enjoy a glass of tea with the sun on our faces. If you ask they will prepare dinner for you, and we did ask, having an inkling that we wouldn’t want to leave this place. The beef and vegetable tagine was essentially really good brisket, the meat falling apart at the slightest fork provocation. Moroccan food, though full of spices, does not taste spicy in the way that Thai or Indian food does. Instead the predominant flavors are the mellower ones of mint, oregano, ginger, pepper, turmeric. This was followed with truly the best fruit salad I have ever had, marinating in fresh peach and orange juice.
Sometimes you’re in Paris and you get a sore throat. And then you wake up and have a fever and are aching all over. From some combination of jet lag, the change in weather and the time spent in the germ incubator that is the airplane, you are sick. And on such a day the thought of doing the fun things you’d planned is just too much. But a day of walking through town stopping at the bakery, the fruit and vegetable market, having a cup of coffee, is just right. And perfect in its own simple way.