Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Day to Remember

Today's a heavy one, folks. But, it has a happy ending so I encourage you to read on if you like that sort of thing. I haven't posted in a while. For lots of reasons but mostly because we moved back to the states and stopped traveling and I started working again and then I got pregnant (three times) but more on that later. I know that October is Miscarriage Awareness Month, and specifically, October 15th is Miscarriage Remembrance Day. I know this because I’ve had two miscarriages. I’m sharing my story to honor the two babies we lost too early, but who will always be in our hearts.

For those of you in the know, you also know that I am currently 25 weeks pregnant with what I already imagine to be the most beautiful and lovable and precious baby boy. This is the silver lining, people! A little something to get us all through the rest of this heaviness. I feel beyond blessed every day, every second really, to be carrying this magnificent gift. He is our special son, and we love him more than we could have ever known was possible and perhaps, even a little more than that.

Though we didn’t arrive to him easily, I have never been more sure that things really do happen the way they are supposed to. Because of what we have suffered, we will love this little guy a little deeper, cherish him a little more thoughtfully, and relish in all his splendor to the last of our living days. It may seem morbid to want to focus on our past losses while we are preparing for such a wondrous event, but a funny thing happens when you carry a child you won’t get to meet. You become a mother, and even when that is taken away from you, and even when you have grieved all you can and you move on, there are still little places in your heart where a couple of little souls live on, who are very much worthy of remembrance.

We lost two pregnancies, one at 9 weeks and the other at 11, within 7 months of each other. The sadness and helplessness in your heart, the guilt and grief in your bones, and the overwhelming fear of a lost future is enough to cave in your soul. It’s all so brutal and so very much to bear. I have the greatest empathy and respect for women who go through infertility. It is a lonely and often private heartbreak that isn’t discussed much, which is why I feel compelled to just put it out there. 

This is our story and it ends with hope. I can’t tell you how many google searches I ran to find just this type of entry when I was in the thick of it. I want to let people know that there can be moments of peace and hopefulness amongst all the worry and pain. And that you should never give up, although this is not a trait that women who want to hold a baby possess. They are warriors. They take the biggest blind leaps of faith, they sacrifice their bodies, and they do so with so much love in their hearts.

This day is for all of them, for all of us, who have dreamed big dreams and had to watch them shatter, incapable of changing nature’s course. And it’s for those of us who pushed our way through it all to arrive at some semblance of peace. I found mine in a group of women who came together every week to share a little bit about the tiny souls in their own hearts. Through this weekly appointment, I gathered up the courage to keep trying and before I knew it, we were blessed with another pregnancy. Nothing will prove life’s serendipitous nature more than having a dream come true, just as you have given up hope. To all my fellow warriors, your day will come too. There is no one more deserving.

But most importantly, this day is for all those beautiful souls who never came to be. Today I remember my two sweet babes, who we loved from their very inception, and who we will love until there is no time left. You both taught me what it means to be a mother, and you paved the way for your brother, who we are ever so grateful for. Without you, we would not know him, and I promise that we will honor you all, forever.

Happy Two Thousand Thirteen

2013, I think you're going to be a good one.

As we close the book on our adventure in Asia and pick up where it all began in San Francisco, we have so much to be grateful for, a few things that we will be glad to leave behind, and so very much to look forward to. I belong to two families full of people who make my world a better place. I have friends from every corner of the world who have made my life more rich and more fun. I have a husband with whom I've traveled the world. Christian, you have quite literally, given my heart wings, and for that I am eternally grateful.

My wish for all of you who I am so blessed to know: I hope 2012 was kind to you and yours. But more than that, I hope that whatever left you short in 2012 is what propels you to your greatest heights in the year to come.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Very Conway Christmas

Christmas is one of my absolute favorite holidays. The onset of colder weather, the tree-picking and adorning, the lists of presents to buy for your favorite people, the peppermint tinged and cinnamon scented delights that are begging for space in your belly. But on top of the traditions and rituals, the star on the top of the tree for me, is the sense of reflection the holidays invoke. It's the time of year to think back on the year behind you and look ahead to the year before you. It's a time to feel gratitude for the wonderful bits you were witness to in the last twelve months and to let go of the not so good things that may have made your boots a bit heavy. It's a time to release and recharge, and you get to celebrate it all with good food, family, and presents. It's not hard to imagine why I love it so much.

We landed back in the states a week or so before Christmas, which meant that we were be able to spend our very first Christmas in Maine. Every time we stay with Christian's parents, we have such a great, relaxing time. They don't call it Spa Conway for nothing! We're always warm, we're always full, and we're always slightly sleepy. My mother-in-law is the ultimate hostess. I always leave in awe of her, and this time was no different. Just how does one take care of so many people all while tending to pots on TWO stove tops that are boiling and sizzling with something delicious? Don't ask me, ask Susan. Her name is synonymous with all the warm and cozy things you associate with "mom". You better believe I know how lucky I am that I have TWO ladies in my life that fit that bill.

Our days in Maine were spent visiting family, eating, playing with Phoebe in the Conway's picturesque yard, eating, and taking turns cooing at our newest family member. We enjoyed a great meal out courtesy of Christian's little brother Jamie and his wife, Lisa. Sharing a couple hours with these two was a luxury we aren't often afforded, so it was especially wonderful to have that time with them. Thanks for the lobster mashed potato experience, guys! We've got your "room" all ready for your visit to SF.

Phoebe enjoyed herself so much that she has been in a funk since we returned to California. We may have to seek professional help. During our time in Maine she had the run of the house. She was treated to constant pats and treats, training exercises with Auntie Lisa, two tufted ottomans to doze on, and a yard full of snow and deer in which to frolic. Come to think of it, Pheebs, I don't blame you. We all wish we lived at Spa Conway.

Auntie Ria and Uncle David hosted a cocktail party that included lots of sushi despite Christian's best effort to tell everyone I hate sushi (I don't!). I have a feeling that this raw fish scandal - let's just call it "sushigate" - will live on infamy and I will spend the rest of my days proving just how much I love the rice and seaweed wrapped delicacy. And all because Christian just wanted pizza!

One of the best Christmas surprises was meeting our new baby niece, Amara. Whitney and Edwin welcomed her into the family in November, so she was every bit of precious that a six week old baby is. All big eyes and sweet baby skin with a soft spot for books (she's a genius!), she is an 11 pound ball of delight. I know all babies are special, but I happen to believe that Amara was blessed with a little something extra. She is an absolute angel and we are delighted for Whitney and Edwin, and so grateful that she is here.

Christmas Eve was spent at Spa Conway. Jamie and Lisa and Susan spent several days prepping a "feast of seven fishes" that was absolutely spectacular. My job was to dress three long dinner tables for our 18 guests. With Susan's tutelage and Lisa's assistance, I was able to bust out a pretty nice spread that took me a mere four hours to perfect. Welcome to my obsessive little world, Conways! Our feast started with tuna poke and some sort of avocado salad with tuna belly a la Jamie and Lisa, both of which were absurdly delicious. Then we all sat down to a light meal of spinach florentine with haddock (or maybe it was cod?), squid linguine with tomato sauce, clam linguine with a garlic butter sauce, fried shrimp, crab cakes, stuffed lobster tails, and so much more.

Sitting there with a full belly on the eve of Christmas (also the day my sweet husband was born), I looked around the room and couldn't help but think how fantastic it was that I had landed here with all of these incredible people. I feel grateful to not only know them, but so fortunate to also call them family. Their traditions run deep and now, I have been gifted a place beside them in that history. To the Conways and everyone in between, you are just the knees on my bees. The cherry on my sundae. The icing on my cake. Thank you for one incredible Christmas.

For the whole week in pictures, head over here

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Hot Town, Summer in Kyoto

During our first trip to Tokyo, way back in August 2011, we took a bullet train to Kyoto. In a city as massive and crowded as Tokyo is, it was so refreshing to experience a mass transit system that runs with such incredible efficiency (I'm glaring at you, San Francisco). Our train pulled to a graceful stop at exactly the time it was scheduled to, to the minute. The seats were pristine and free of excrement (again, I'm looking at you San Francisco), our fellow travelers so quiet you could hear a pin drop.

I should pause here to discuss one of my favorite things about traveling. It's not the exotic locales or  getting to sleep in the hotel's cozy "heavenly bed"; it's free hotel breakfast buffets. There, I said it. I am an unapologetic, over-zealous eater of food. I hate to be stuck wandering around a foreign city with no food in my belly. In our experience this doesn't end well. So, each morning of vacation, I always allow extra time to participate in the hotel's breakfast. And "participate" is the right word for it. I imbibe wholeheartedly and most times I take my share, and Christian's too. He is not a breakfast eater. We are a good team in this way.

Sometimes it's just stale bread, cereal, and cups of fruit salad. Sometimes it's a wonderland of help yourself bars of the salad, omelet, waffle, and fresh seafood variety. And the good ones always have a dessert bar. Rows and rows of pastries laid out cafeteria-style. Some of them are unidentifiable squares of pink stuff. They don't taste good; but like a school boy at his first coed dance, I am drawn to them not so much by their beauty as by their unlimited quantities. So, the morning we were to leave for Kyoto, I had to catch one last breakfast helping at our hotel because it was of the latter, wondrous smorgasbord variety. I chowed down on an omelet, granola, coffee, two types of juice, and stuffed a square of suspicious but delicious looking cake in my purse for later. Christian ate coffee and kept reminding me we were going to be late.

We weren't late, and Christian had a chance to score his ideal breakfast from a vending machine at the station. A box of dumpling flavored pretz, a plastic wrapped waffle, and a roll of chicken flavored potato chips. Oddly missing was a bottle of water to wash down all that sodium but who am I to nag? Back to Kyoto. We arrived at precisely the exact moment that was indicated to us on our ticket, and settled into our hotel. Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan, and is one of it's largest cities behind biggies like Tokyo and Osaka. It's also rich in cultural history and home to hundreds of beautiful temples that are nestled in the surrounding mountains. It is beautiful to behold. Kyoto is situated in a valley, so the mountainous surroundings make the giant temples seem dainty, like the whole scene belongs in a snow globe.

This was going to be a good time. But, future travelers to Kyoto, a little tip. Do not visit Kyoto in the summer. It is hot as Hades! I think I mentioned the temples nestled into the mountains? You have to walk to those. I think I mentioned that Kyoto is situated in a valley? It's a crevice of stifling humidity in 103 degree heat. We took in the fantastic temples while wiping sweat that dripped like velveeta down our faces and backs. In the searing afternoon heat we began to cast off temples that were too far away from our long list of 'temples to see'. So, we saw what we could until our legs began to feel like they were swimming in a boiling cup o' noodles. Dazzled as we were by Kyoto's sights, before we knew it, we were in a taxi heading back to the air con.

After a day of sweaty sightseeing, we decided to hit up Pontocho.  For centuries, there have been bars and restaurants along the Pontocho nightlife drag with decks overlooking the Kamo river. This is where geisha would traditionally entertain their clients. Hoping to see some real live geisha we headed out in the (thankfully) cooler evening air. Like all things Japanese, the experience was delightful. We walked by countless yakitori bars, stopped by a couple of whiskey joints, and bellied up to an Italian-fusion noodle bar that was surprisingly delicious.

I have never felt so far away from home than when in Japan, but I've also never felt more at home in a foreign city. In a land where it's not all that easy to get by without knowing at least some of the language (those three years of Spanish you took in high school are certainly not going to help you in Japan), we made our way around with ease and our pointing and motioning were accepted with a smile and we always got what we needed and where we needed to be. I thought Tokyo topped my favorite places list but Kyoto is right up there. I have no doubt in my mind we'll be back someday. If not to see the temples we missed because of the crippling heat, then for one more sampling of the ultimate  of ultimate hotel breakfast buffets.

Kyoto: We came, we saw, we sweated.

For more shots of our trip to Kyoto, you can head on over here.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Tokyo : Putting the "Top" in Top Ramen

When I was a kid growing up in the Central Valley, Top Ramen was about as Japanese as one could get. For those of you who may have had a more richly cultured childhood, Top Ramen is just another brand of one of those packaged soups that come as a brick of dry noodles with a foil-wrapped package of concentrated "Oriental" (gah!) flavors that you drop in boiling water and consume three minutes later. It contains about two times the amount of sodium that an adult needs in a day, but the health risks are far surpassed by it's deliciousness when one is hungover and the fact that you can buy four of them for a dollar. When I slurped them down on a near daily basis in the summers as a child, and then again as a cash-strapped adult, it didn't feel as if I was being transported to an exotic foreign land. It felt like I was eating salty soup.

"Ramen" made from a brick of dried stuff, mixed with more dried stuff.

Our trip to Tokyo was highly anticipated. (And not just because I'd finally get to sample some real ramen.) Our first visit to Japan was scheduled for early March 2011, but a few days before we were to depart for Tokyo, the big earthquake and subsequent tsunami that wiped out several Northeastern towns in Japan hit. We watched the images on TV of that horrific tidal wave and days later, heard the stories unfold about the staggering loss of life. Obviously, this wasn't the time for us to visit. Even though Tokyo was mostly unscathed, it just didn't feel right to be tourists in a city that had been touched so recently by such an awful tragedy.

We finally made it to Tokyo in August 2011. When I tried to envision what we'd find there, my thoughts turned to various scenes from "Lost in Translation", odd items available for purchase from vending machines, extremely bustling and neon-ified city streets that would make Times Square look like a residential street in Missouri, girls made up like dolls in brightly colored clothes and pigtails holding stuffed animals, and oddly, tiny dogs wearing shoes. So yes, needless to say, I was excited.

We spent our first day in Tokyo roaming on foot and ended up at the Meiji Shrine in Shibuya. At this point in our travels in Asia we have seen quite a few shrines. And temples. And Buddha's. And statues. I'm happy to report that the Meiji Shrine is not just another shrine. It is located within 175 lush acres of evergreen forest. You can walk for hours and each turn you take will lead you to another spectacular landscape. Coi fish, bansai gardens, wishing wells, prayer walls, and on our visit, several live performances starring the cutest kids ever. It was beautiful and calming, even in the searing heat and suffocating humidity. And holy moly, is it ever so hot and sticky in Japan in the summer.

Next, we headed over to Harajuku. In stark contrast to the serenity of the Meiji Shrine, things in cartoonland get weird. Harajuku is, to put it simply, a shopping district where young kids, mostly girls, hang out and mingle. It just so happens that these young people share an affinity for dress-up. Really loud and colorful dress up. It's pretty awesome to take in. There are quirky shops filled with quirky people, all of them shouting something to passers by that sounds like "Ta-tok-y-moss, Ta-tok-y-moss". I have no idea what that means, but I assume it's "Come in and buy something...look at me....I am delightful!". It's frenetic and chaotic and there's something about the atmosphere and the precious, neon-decked shopgirls that makes you want to purchase the socks that look like animals or rainbow hairclips or animal masks that most of the stores offer. It's extreme concentrated wackiness and I love every last adorable part of it.

On the back side of Harajuku is Omotesando, another shopping mecca, however this one is more catered to the Harajuku teen's older, more sophisticated sister. Christian loves it. High end clothing and gift shops abound and one thing is boldly clear: Japanese people are extremely fashion and trend forward. Such. Cool. Stuff. Not only does everything seem just a little more hip in Tokyo, attention to detail is everywhere. When you happen upon what you think might be the coolest thing ever and you buy it, you are surprised by how impeccably they wrap your item. Boring bags are for dummys. The tiny pocket calendar I purchased was then painstakingly wrapped in gold cellophane, and tied with a ribbon and a tiny plastic pig charm. 

This attention to detail and innate courteousness can be witnessed in all areas of daily life. Having been warned about not shutting my own door when I exit a cab, I skipped over getting chided for doing so. Instead, I slip out of each cab and watch the driver pull a lever that makes the door shut on it's own. Japanese drivers have figured out a way to be chivalrous without ever leaving the driver's seat. And one can hardly complain about the plumbing here. Toilet seats are a preheated, toasty warm. A menu of warm jets of varying intensities, direction and temperature awaits should I choose to press one of the many buttons. (I am afraid to do so.) In public spaces, nobody seems to speak above a whisper. In this enormous and sprawling metropolitan city that can easily rival New York City in culture, food, and even shopping, you would be hard pressed to find anyone laying on their horn or flipping a bird. It is a startling (but warming) revelation, that even in a bustling city, people can manage to be respectful.

Tokyo is HUGE. Over the next couple days, we weave in and out of all the little shops and neighborhoods and in typical Conway fashion, get hungry then frazzled by the vast array of food and completely indecipherable menus, and then hungry turns to h-angry. It happens almost every trip and this is typically when we seek out the nearest Outback Steakhouse, Shakey's Pizza, or in this case a tiny little pasta shop. Italian in Tokyo? Sure, why not?

Mexican in Tokyo? If it exists we will find it and find it we did. Twice. We happened upon La Casita near the Daikanyama station in Shibuya during a day of meandering. Sad we found it after having just eaten, we went up and enjoyed a few margaritas and some surprisingly delicious chips and salsa.

Since we were planning to meet up with a friend who had moved to Tokyo from San Francisco that evening, we decided we'd have him join us there. Maurice is a lovely and gracious guy and we were delighted to see a familiar face, and even more delighted that he was willing to meet us for Mexican in Japan. Since our first trip to Tokyo in August, we've managed to see Maurice several more times as well as another dear friend, Kevin, who was there on business. When you decide to leave everything and everyone you know and move across the globe, being afforded the opportunity to sit with people you care about can make a regular day seem extraordinary. We're so grateful we got to share a few moments of our adventure with a couple of people we love.

So far in our travels Tokyo has been one of my favorite places to visit. Not only is Tokyo's shopping fantastic, the food delectable, and the city as electric and modern as it is eclectic and ancient, it's people are the real draw. Common courteousness takes on a whole new meaning in Japan. It's not something you shout at someone when they step around you and steal your taxi, or something you mutter to yourself as you narrowly miss stepping on a pile of human feces (this has happened more times than you probably want to know). In Japan, common courtesy is what it sounds like. People respect others as they respect themselves. In a city where almost nobody speaks your language, and where at 5'10" you tower over most, I have never felt more welcome or at ease.

Oh, and about that ramen? That sad brick of noodle matter that you can buy in cellophane for a quarter? Never again. Our last supper in Tokyo was the real stuff. Before we landed in Tokyo, I read an entire book about it's origin, the painstaking process of how it's lovingly put together by blending just the right amount of fish, pork, and chicken stock, and how each bowl and it's toppings vary from town to town. Forget the nice people, I'd go back to Tokyo just for this bowl. It's that good.

 For more pictures from our trip, head over here.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Like Sands Through the Hour Glass, So Are the Meals of Our Lives

The next stop on our Spanish roadtrip was the highly anticipated San Sebastian. A quaint seaside town for the food obsessed, San Sebastian, whose population is a mere 120,000, holds 15 coveted Michelin stars. Compare that to somewhere like London, who holds 34 stars, but with about 40 times the population and a gazillion times the visitors. This adorable Spanish town holds more Michelin stars per square foot than anywhere else in the world. We were entering foodie paradise, and we were more than ready to throw down. Over the next four days we will gaze out over the picturesque seaside, take several culinary tours throughout San Sebastian's Parte Vieja, and dine at one of the top restaurants in the world (8th best, to be exact). 

I could go on and on about how amazingly beautiful and charming San Sebastian is. How the waves of the azure colored Bay of La Concha lazily lap the white sandy beaches that give way in all directions to a town dotted with glorious churches, incredible architecture, and a picturesque old port. I could, or I could share these pictures and get on with the good stuff.

Our time is San Sebastian can be broken into two meals. Actually, two events. The word "meal" just doesn't do justice to eating in San Sebastian. My homemade chicken soup is a meal - this deserves to be elevated far above that. This is the world's gastronomic capital we're talking about.

So, two events. One is taken in Michelin-star opulence, prepared by a rock-star chef who tours the dining room at the end of the night, shaking hands and signing menus. The other is taken in something resembling a dive bar, prepared by some old guys stuffed into the back of tiny kitchens. One is a 12-course degustation designed by Juan Mari Arzak, the owner and executive chef of one of the top 10 restaurants in the world. The other is a four-course booze-up created at our leisure while walking from bar to pub in San Sebastian's Parte Vieja. One costs a month's rent. The other costs a twelve pack of beer.

Arzak, the restaurant, is ridiculous and ridiculously good. As far as fine dining and molecular gastronomy go, Juan Mari Arzak has been a real game changer. Regarded as the founding father of Modern Basque cuisine, Arzak has held it’s 3 Michelin star status since 1989. The reigns at Arzak have since been handed over from Juan Mari to his more than capable daughter Elena, but they both continue to roam the dining room to check in on their patrons. Every single diner, every single night of service. I had stalked this father/daughter team since learning about them from various magazine articles and several different shows on the Travel Channel and Food Network, so when Elena visited our table at the beginning of our meal, and again at the end to check in on us, this food nerd was absolutely starstruck. Concerns over the freshman 15 I had gained thus far on our honeymoon were quieted, a momentous entry on my perpetual bucket list was crossed off, and I sat back ready to be stuffed and awed. Back to the ridiculousness...

The ridiculousness comes mostly with the price tag and that awkward, shameful moment when the bill arrives and you start to realize what else you could have spent that money on (a week's accommodation; supermarket bought lunches for the next couple of months; food for 500 starving children in Africa). There's ridiculousness on the plate as well: dry ice carrying the scent of Iberico ham; an oyster that turns out to be mushroom soup; balls of things that shouldn't physically be able to be made into balls; a plate of simple syrup that takes on the appearance of a red piece of coral; edible gold leaf draped across a fillet of fish that's probably worth more than the edible gold leaf.

The twelve courses are made up of five "'amusements", including a corn flavored veloute with black pudding and figs and some sort of tomato dish that was served enveloped in Iberico ham scented smoke. I told you. Ridiculous. Next up are three starters, served in two's for sharing. My favorite was the cromlech with onion, coffee, and tea. The Stonehenge-like parcels had a crispy, light like air tapioca and squid ink shell. The filling was some sort of foie gras and onion-flavored mousse. We struggled to understand our Spanish waitress’ explanation of how to eat the thing initially, but finally got the gist of it when she mimed flipping it over and eating it as you would an ice cream cone.

Cromlech with onion, coffee, and tea
'Low-tide' monkfish
The starters are followed by the fish course, a playful dish called 'low-tide' monkfish for me. It came served beached alongside green clams made of mussels, white crispy seashells made of sugar, blue curacao-jellied stars, and red tempura'ed seaweed. On top, and scattered around were little spheres of roasted red pepper-flavored ‘caviar’.

Soup and chocolate between vineyards
The last of the savory dishes included a lamb course for me and a beef dish for CC. They were both spectacular but we had food up to our eyeballs at this point, and those sneaking fears about the layer of padding I had added to my newlywed self had started to come back. And then they started the dessert course and I stopped caring again. Three desserts later, including the stand out 'Soup and Chocolate Between Vineyards', which was a play on a grapevine, where the grapes were perfect spheres of chocolate with the texture of an actual grape, and a scoop of basil ice cream (that acted as the 'stem'), all of it swimming in a soup of sweet and sour strawberry. And lastly, a tray of mini desserts shaped like tools from a workshop. Mango legos, dark chocolate bolts, fizzy cola washers, and hazelnut screws. Over-extended tummies aside, when a meal ends like that, what can you do but smile?

Next, and in stark contrast, is the other food event we experienced in San Sebastian. Every other meal during our stay was spent wandering from course to course in pub to pub in the Parte Vieja. Here, there are alleyways and crossroads overflowing with bars that are overflowing with pintxos. See it and weep, people:

The ritual is easy, the ritual is awesome. Truckloads of people hit the cobblestone streets at nightfall and spill out of doorways sipping wine and eating bar snacks. When they've enjoyed their first course, they move on and dive into more deliciousness further down the street. Enter, imbibe, ingest, depart, and repeat. We find what we feel is a good place to start. Diners and drinkers have spilled out onto the dimly lit street, laughing and yelling and sipping wine. There's only one thing to do: head down, arms tucked in, aim for the bar. Here you get to pick your poison, pile it onto a plate, and pay by the honor system when you're done. This system shouldn't work amongst all the chaos, but it does. And it does deliciously. Everything that is served is fresh, none of it processed. Course two is around the corner, the third course four doors down. More yelling, more crowds, more laughing, our hands dripping with olive oil, our bellies full of beer.  I insist we keep going despite the growing look of fear on Christian's face as he discovers his bride's extreme love of food and the lengths at which she'll go to experience it. I'll push myself as an athlete does, only I push to sickness. I am a true Olympian.

Arzak was amazing, we agree, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There's food there we didn't know was food. Classic Basque dishes are paired with cutting-edge molecular gastronomy. There's a calm, comfortable environment and impeccable service from smiling wait staff. It's first class. But the traditional pintxos pub crawl? Being pushed around by locals indulging a passion for food, for friends, for life. Waiting for the barman to finish slicing up a huge leg of Iberico ham before raising a txakoli bottle high in the air and dribbling it into a glass. Salivating at the smells of frying meat. Helping ourselves to the huge plates of tapas strewn across the bar. Jostling. Laughing with my adorable new husband over the amount of food I can consume. Drinking. Eating. Eating. Eating. This is living. And I'll take it any day.

For more pic's of our time in San Sebastian, go on over to flickr.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lovin' La Rioja

After soaking up all the culture, lovely architecture, and jamon we could stomach in Barcelona we set out on our next adventure: wine country in Northern Spain. It’s no secret that Christian and I love all things wine country. We hoard our precious (and dwindling) supply of Napa Cabernet, we look back at our wedding photos with Sonoma as the backdrop and wistfully sigh, "someday". There’s just something about a countryside dotted with grapevines that beckons to both of us. The juxtaposition of all those old gnarled vines sitting in rows of natural orderliness, bearing a fruit who’s slightness yields abundance. If I could look out on that scene for the rest of my days, I’d die a happy woman.

We left Barcelona, picked up our convertible and took off to take
in the countryside by way of the Pyrenees. We zigzagged along the border of France and Spain for miles and miles. The scene was a desolate desert (and freezing due to Christian’s insistence on keeping the top down), but we had our tunes, each other, and our palpable excitement to keep us occupied. As we left the rugged North we felt the temperature rise as we hit the Spanish plains south of Pamplona. We were headed to La Rioja, Spain’s own Sonoma. Although, to give credit where credit is due, La Rioja has been around for literally ages. Time to get our medieval drink on! 

As we drove closer to our final destination, we took in a region awash with glorious vineyards, sunburst colors, dreamy landscapes, Gothic monasteries and enticing wine towns. And finally after several twists and turns, we approached the town of Laguardia, our home base for the next three days. The teeny tiny fortress town of Laguardia is a blip in La Rioja’s wine region, but it’s a walled village dating back to the 1300’s so we decided this was the port for us. For this portion of the trip, we would call the Hotel Castillo de Collado home. Our hotel, a converted castle, sits proudly on a rocky hilltop ensuring spectacular views of the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range and miles and miles of vineyards.

When we pulled into our temporary abode, we were greeted by Xavier, the hotel's owner (also concierge, butler, coffee-maker, housekeeper, and chef). Xavier, who had grown up in the hotel, looks like a character from a movie. Probably in his seventies, he is long and lean and full of charm and charisma. His aged face is kind and his mouth appears to be wrinkled into a grin after years of smiles. We liked him immediately and though he hardly spoke English, he'd take wonderful care of us over the next couple days. While Christian parked the car, this thin, wonderful old man carried our massive suitcases up to our suite, which happened to be up several narrow, stone spiral staircases. I never would have let him, but he waved me away with a gentle authority that I knew I shouldn't question. After that, we did whatever Xavier told us to do and he never steered us wrong.

While we got settled, Xavier brought us two glasses of Rioja (fitting) and explained by gesturing how to work the various components of our room. Next, we set off to explore the village. The town is more like a square. A walled in village with pedestrian only alleyways consisting of a handful of small hotels, restaurants, and wine and specialty shops. In the center of town is a square where people gather and socialize. Somehow there seems to be quite a few locals and tourists about, which is surprising considering we walked the entire town in about 10 minutes and there is nothing around for miles. I'm beginning to wonder how we ever even ended up here, but I'm glad we did.

Laguardia's population seems to consist mostly of old folks sitting on benches, snacking on baguettes and locally made cured meats, taking in the sunset at dusk or watching the oversized cuckoo clock in the town square strike six. During this ceremony, which we're told happens nightly, everyone gathers in the square and the kids jumprope and dance while the elders look on. The whole scene is so picturesque you can't help but imagine the scenes of prior evenings and wish so badly you could have grown up here, too.

Our days in Laguardia started early. We were still a bit wonky because of the jet lag and time change, so we’d wake up in the dark and try to be quiet until we heard Xavier stir downstairs. Once we knew he was awake, we’d stumble downstairs and he would joke with us that we needed to go back to bed, that I was still sleepy. It felt as though we were kids spending the weekend with our beloved Grandfather. I wouldn't have been surprised if he started sneaking us a few Werther's Originals from the candy bowl or pulling quarters from our ears, but instead he’d make us our coffee and tell us where we should go once the village was awake. Considering we had already conquered Laguardia (in our first 30 minutes there), we spent the next couple days driving around and taking in the surrounding villages and their amazing hundreds year old churches.

And of course, no trip would be complete without us stuffing ourselves to sickness on the local cuisine. In basque country, food is quite different and more mountainous than in the more populated and coastal regions of Spain where seafood reigns supreme. Think hearty lamb stews, beef dishes from nose to tail, rich rice dishes, and a smorgasbord of small plates, like meatballs and lots of baked legumes. It was in Laguardia that we started implementing txikiteo, or the tapas crawl, where instead of wasting our precious stomach space on just one restaurant, we'd wander from bar to bar, nibbling on different specialities until our bellies were full. It was also around this time that we started to feel our pants tighten and our fingers swell.

Our stay in La Rioja consisted of a lot less wine sampling than I expected and a lot more driving with the top down, heading wherever the wind would take us. And with a little guidance from our friend, Xavier, we were always guided somewhere delicious. Next up, San Sebastian! Someone pass the tums.

More pics from our time in La Rioja can be viewed here.