Paris Day-To-Day

Staying Put

In line with my devout belief that Paris should not be hurried, there will be no hotel recommendations here.  We don’t use them. They’re too expensive. Laundry and drycleaning are vastly overpriced. You can’t cook your own food. Unless you sneak takeout food into your room, you have to eat out three times a day. An in-house continental breakfast can cost $20 and more. People are forever knocking and entering. Drunks bellow in the halls at 2:00 AM.  You are isolated in a unilingual bubble patrolled by desk clerks and bartenders.

Instead, for any stays of three or more days, we rent apartments, usually with one bedroom, kitchen, and sitting room. Depending on the city and country, we save 10% to 30% over rates of mid-range hotels in desirable neighborhoods for the same periods of time. We stock the kitchens with juice, coffee, milk, and breakfast goods, and shop nearby markets for lunch and dinner fixings. Even in expensive cities, we easily save 50% over dining out.  If the flats come with washing machines, that cuts costs as well, but even using nearby coin laundromats or drycleaners provides economies compared to hotels. Best of all, there can be easier interaction with locals, not only with neighborhood waiters and shopkeepers who recognize regulars, but with conversations struck up with people at the next table or park bench.

We’ve successfully rented apartments and small houses in Tuscany, Key West, Teruel (Spain), Québec, New York, Block Island, Venice, Amsterdam, and Paris. Finding a satisfactory rental admittedly requires a lot of research. There are many websites offering rentals, but two with very comprehensive listings are www.vrbo.com (“Vacation Rentals By Owner”), which is now a subsidiary of www.homeaway.com. There is some overlap between them, but not much.

Nearly all the listings have photos – the more the better, of course. If only one or two are offered, that’s a warning signal that the owner might be hiding something. Written descriptions should be confirmed by the photos and vice versa.  People don’t seem to be sure about the meaning of “full”, “queen”, or “king” beds. In Europe, they often refer to twins pushed together and fitted with sheets and blankets to cover both. It’s good to check if the TV carries English-language channels, such as CNN or the BBC. Entertainment channels in English are rare outside North America and the United Kingdom. Kitchens are the most difficult to judge satisfactorily in the listings: It’s impossible to tell whether the knives are sharp, whether there are non-stick pans, pasta pots, sufficient silverware and glasses.  These are questions to ask the landlord, with no certainty of adequate answers.

We’ve never encountered a true stinker, but we’ve come close (see Amsterdam Isn’t Paris), partly because the choices for short stays are limited and I didn’t pay enough attention to the selection of an appealing neighborhood. Being within walking or easy bus or subway distance of at least a few major sites, useful food sources and services such as laundromats, and  a selection of restaurants all enhance a stay.

Our favorite rental flat, not just in Paris, but in all our European stays, is a prime example. We are soon to return there for the third time. It’s on rue Vieux Columbier in the 6th arrondissement on the Left Bank, adjacent to the Latin Quarter, and meets just about every requirement we could reasonably wish. That includes a quiet, secure ground floor location – no stairs – and a weekly rate that is in the moderate range, at least for Paris. Two bus stops and three Metro lines are within a block’s walk.

Massive, deeply carved entrance doors (photo, top left) swing open with the input of a four-digit code on the keypad. A long, dim corridor passes a couple of offices and a staircase of the Comedie Française theater, next door, before it enters an open, five-story courtyard. The building is said to date from the 1700s, although it looks, for the most part, no older than late 19th Century.  Down a second, shorter, hall into another court, this one with trees and a large wooden shed that turns out to be the workshop of the theater.

A coded lockbox holds the key to the french door into the bedroom. It’s tight inside , barely room enough for the twin beds, their white comforters, two good reading lights (a rarity), and a small bureau with a telephone. The main kitchen/living/dining room is larger than most of our past VRBO apartments. To the right of the bedroom door is a square Parsons-style table with two cushioned raffia chairs. The window next to it looks out on the leafy court. To the left is a cooking island, containing a two-burner electric stovetop, a sink, dishwasher, adequate cutlery, utensils, pots, pans. Off the front entrance alcove is a small space with toilet and a combination washer/dryer.

In front of the island are two suede-covered tub chairs. Nearby, a tall cabinet has the cable TV, CD player, an under-counter fridge, and a microwave. Up above are stacks and rows of every bit of glassware and crockery you’re likely to require. In the main sitting area are two more casual chairs and a long brown sofa that opens into a queen-sized bed. A large Rothko-esque painting above the couch was an attractive recent addition. There is ample lighting for reading, including halogen track lamps up near the 12-foot ceiling, not necessarily to be expected in European rentals. Finally, there are tiled alcoves with a sliding door containing a sink and a shower (no tub).  They provide free Wi-Fi. All the photos on this page are mine or the owners’.

Cons? It would be nice if there was another square meter or so in the bedroom and the washer/dryer is very loud and takes some work to master. Otherwise, we find it highly satisfactory for two, with room for a kid or an adult guest. The youngish owners, David and Françoise Sackrider, are American (he) and French (she). They are meticulously unobtrusive, but do everything they can to make the stay comfortable, understanding that both work during the day and escape most weekends to their country place.

The weekly rate is €1,050 ($1,418 at $1.35 to the euro). Contact them directly at www.zepoint.net.

Paris When It Sizzles

Eating

All the world’s great cuisines – Italian, French, Chinese – and, arguably, Mexican and Spanish, have contributed to the international food revolution of recent decades. Describing the results has involved such tortuously conceived rubrics as “Fusion”, “Pan-Asian”, “Global”, and “Molecular”. But even the most iconoclastic of super-duper chefs concede, albeit reluctantly, that their bedrock culinary techniques are more often drawn from the Gallic repertoire than from any other.

The techniques and philosophies of French gastronomy were brought together and recorded in Physiology of Taste by Jean Anhelm Brillat-Savarin (1755-1876), a prodigious work that required 25 years’ research. He was followed by the storied chef George Auguste Escoffier (1847-1935) and Prosper Montagne (1865-1948), author of the definitive encyclopedia of cooking, Larousse Gastronomique. (Few Frenchmen would likely approve of the historical claim that the real inspiration of French cooking was Catherine de Medici, a chubby little Italian teenager who arrived in Paris in 1533 to be queen to Henry II and brought along a platoon of chefs to create her sumptuous state dinners.)

We’ve patronized dozens of Parisian restaurants over the last three years, and notes about some of them follow. Given that time period, these remarks can be regarded as no more than fleeting impressions, not to be followed without checking other reputable sources. Owners sell out, chefs are always on the move, and fashions and once-fervid enthusiasms fade. At least, these were all still open…at this writing.

A phenomenon of recent years has a number of highly ambitious Michelin-starred chef-restaurateurs giving up the demanding rat race of gathering ever more stars or desperately hanging on to those already gained. Most notable among the men stepping off the escalator was Yves Camdeborde, who built a monster rep as the genius-in-residence of a celebrated haute cuisine restaurant. He bought a small boutique hotel off boulvevard St-Germain with an attached brasserie he named Le Comptoir du Relais (9 carrefour de l’Odéon, www.hotel-paris-relais-saint-germain.com). With the combo of M. Camdeborde and his reasonably priced menu, the place was instantly, insanely popular. Call in February for a dinner reservation and you might get one for September, later, if you want a Saturday night.

A better option, if you have the patience, is to show up at the door a little before noon or seven in the evening and join the wait line. If possible, show up as a foursome or couple – you’ll get seated before a threesome. It’s worth the trouble.  The food is excellent – uncomplicated and resoundingly flavorful; the service swift but conscientious. Our last time we had remoulade tourteau (crab and avocado) and toast layered with four silky slices of foie gras, followed by plats principaux crispy shreds of suckling pig and pig’s foot (unexpectedly tender). The boss intends to keep prices reasonable, and succeeds: Dinner for two was only €85, including wine, tax, and service. Open daily.

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Paris Anytime

Out & About

Only a handful of other world cities can equal the wealth of diversions, monuments, and cultural repositories of this capital on the Seine.  It contains elegant parks and gardens, both spacious and compact; more than sixty museums of grand ambition or narrow iconoclastic mission; a dozen prominent dance venues and scores of art galleries; concerts and recitals of classical music in churches and halls; and cabaret and jazz programs in cellars and clubs on the scene for decades or since yesterday.

Paris has profited by the impulse of presidents of recent decades to leave behind lasting monuments to themselves, most recently, Jacques Chirac’s Musée de Quai Branley. That munificent gesture was preceded by Georges Pompidou’s Musée National d’Art Moderne/Centre Pompidou, and François Mitterrand”s Bibliothèque Nationale and the controversial I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid addition to the Louvre.  Surely one of the three or four most important art museums in the world, the Louvre was further enhanced by Mitterrand’s expansion of its exhibition space. Yes, the Mona Lisa. The Winged Victory of Samothrace. Venus de Milo. All those and so much more – the art of ancient Egypt, the Far East, Islam, Africa, Oceana – of course you must see it. Even those with short attention spans can find themselves wandering the halls for hours and returning the next day to see what they missed.

But there are at least fifty other museums and as many as seventy, depending upon who’s counting. Here are some favorites.

A grand former railway station was saved from demolition at the behest of President Giscard d’Estaing to become the Musée d’Orsay (1 rue de la Légion d’Honneur, www.musee-orsay.fr). It’s mission was far narrower than its big brother, focusing on French painting and sculpture from 1848 to 1914. However, that period embraces the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists as well as their Romantic predecessors and descendants (such as Rodin, photo at left). The dramatically vaulted space could have held more if another couple of floors had been inserted.  Thankfully, they were not, because the architecture is as compelling a sight as the masses of Corots and Manets and Klimts, all on view within. A not-so-vaguely-erotic sidelight is the sculpture of a nude woman positioned right in the middle of the main concourse. It’s called “Woman Bitten By A Snake” by Auguste Clésinger, from 1847. No reptile is represented, but it can be assumed that the intent of the title is metaphorical, since the female is almost certainly (to many observers, at least) in the whiplash throes of a mighty orgasm.

Since the arts of the West are on ample view in the city, Jacques Chirac reached out to those of what de Gaulle famously identified as “The Third World” – Africa, Oceania, Asia, and pre-Columbian America. Called the Musée du Quai Branly (29-55 quai Branley, www.quaibranly.fr),  the building was designed by the honored French architect Jean Nouvel. It deploys half its square footage for gardens and water features. The exhibition spaces flow idiosyncratically from one geographic and cultural region to another, a dismissal of conventional arrangements that has Continue Reading »

Amsterdam Is Not Paris

I hate transfers. That is, the time spent getting from one place to another. Packing. Taxis. Traffic anxiety. Airport. Security. Gate changes. Delayed flights. Airplane seats designed by little people for little people. Circling airports. Passport control. Taxi to hotel. Sullen desk clerks. Room not ready. Unpacking. Jet lag. What’s to like? I’m not a control freak -I’m not!- but to be at the mercy of the rules and needs of others is maddening.

We were eager to get on to Amsterdam, but our train from Paris was retarde – delayed. We looked around for a place to wait. This was Gare du Nord, one of France’s busiest railway stations and terminus of the Eurostar train between Paris and London. I didn’t want to spend one minute more than necessary there. News reports had led me to believe that the it was a hellstorm of ethnic riots, pickpockets, and roaming gangs of thieves. We had hidden our credit cards, passports, and cash so far away that rampaging villains would have to carve several layers of clothing from our bodies. As it happened, the station was like any other – noisy, busy, milling, confusing, but hardly threatening.

The train wasn’t even that late – thirty minutes. We located our seats, way, way down at the end. Legroom was similar to coach on a plane, perhaps a touch roomier. Cheap, though, at €39 each, one-way, nonexchangeable and nonrefundable. Sandwiches from the bar car. The uneventful trip took four hours and 25 minutes, as scheduled.

At Station Centraal in Amsterdam, we snagged a cab easily enough, and after a couple of wrong turns were deposited at the address given us by the owner of the apartment we had rented in advance online. It was incorrect – 149 Bilderdijkstraat. No one to meet us. We stood on the corner, bags and all, looking up one street, down another, waiting for someone we didn’t know in a vehicle that could have been anything from a bicycle to a bus.  People took pity on us, stopping to ask if they could help us. They couldn’t.

Finally, after 90 minutes, we got a text on our world phone. We weren’t even certain it was working. Connection was made. Dirk, the other half of the couple who owned the apartment, eventually picked us up and drove us around the corner. It was at 178 Kinkerstraat, which his partner Marijn had helpfully informed us in an earlier e-mail was “close to number 180.”

STAYING

Dutch houses are known for their very steep stairs; #178 didn’t disappoint. It was a bear getting our luggage up to the second floor, and we make a point of packing light. But we made it. The flat was long and narrow. In the front, it looked down on Kinkerstraat and its steady stream of trams, cars, buses, scooters, and relentless blizzards of bicycles. An alcove at back took in a view of what might have once been a garden, but was now merely overgrown. A queen bed filled the space, wall to wall. At 6’2″, the top of my head brushed one wall, my toes the one opposite. As the designated inside sleeper, and prone to early morning bathroom visits, I would somehow have to crawl over Jo without waking her.

Said bathroom had a marble floor shaped like the floor of a shower stall. That is to say, it was the floor of the shower, sharing space with the toilet and the sink. We could only hope that the drain was efficient. The adjacent kitchen and its equipment were basic, but with only three and a half days in town, we planned no cooking. The rest of the furnishings were Dorm Room Basic, including three milk crates for tables, a nearly floor-level sofa, and a mid-size TV. (In The Netherlands, most entertainment shows are British and American and are shown in the original languages, with subtitles. Before our stay was over, we saw reruns of Friends, Will & Grace, and Everyone Loves Raymond.)

We went out to pick up wine, water, and soap after an exploratory stroll around the neighborhood. It was not promising. Called Oud West – Old West – it could charitably be described as frowsy, even bleak. The sidewalks were lined with locksmiths, hardware stores, and fly-specked pizza joints. I had misjudged this for an up-and-coming district, whereas it was mostly just gone, vague in identity and purpose.

At least the flat was cheap, by current standards and the bottoming dollar, renting for €360 for four nights, about half what a three-star hotel would cost.

GETTING AROUND

There were frequent trams passing by the nearest corner, getting us out of Oud West to more agreeable precincts. Jo was determined to get a handle on the transit system. She discovered that a strip card of fifteen tickets cost only €7, a big reduction over the  €1.60 individual tickets sold on the tram. They are available at supermarkets and some tobacconists. Enter the tram through the door down toward the back. A conductor sits in a booth there. Present your ticket and he/she stamps it. They’re good for directions, too. Most attractions and desirable neighborhoods are within 20-30 minutes of the Station Centraal, the main transit hub.

Near the station are the piers that serve as home base for the several canal boat tours that circle the city, stopping at major sites where passengers can hop off for visits, then board the next boat in the same line to continue. There are a variety of itineraries available, most taking one to two hours. The one we chose cost €20 each, and amounted to a 24-hour pass. The boat edged out into the harbor for a few minutes, then entered one of several horseshoe-shaped canals that surround the ancient city center.

There are 252 bridges in the historic core of the city. Most of the inner city canals are lined with houseboats, hundreds of them. Over 2,500 have gas and electricity. Among the several additional forms of waterborne traffic are water taxis, barges, kayaks, and “canal bikes” – self-propelled paddleboats, which can be rented at many of the same places where tourboats dock.

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It takes a load of entrepreneurial audacity, not to mention gobs of guts and baskets of money, to open a restaurant at the nadir of the worst economic recession in 70 years. Eating places of every category are withering and dying. Chefs are cutting staffs, reducing hours and days, trimming menus, exploring which ingredients might be replaced by cheaper options. And yet, here is Jimmy Rodriguez, owner of Don Coqui in suburban Westchester County, throwing open his doors and his arms in August 2009.

You have to admire his nerve. His new venue, after all, used to be MacMenamin’s Grill, which looked to be pretty successful to casual observers. It occupied a two-story loft that once housed a lucite factory, offering not only a spacious second-floor restaurant and lounge, but two working kitchens and a third intended for cooking classes. Rodriquez didn’t significantly change those functions, but he shifted the emphasis of his featured cuisine from the “New American” of his predecessor to “Puerto Rican”.

His menu could as easily be labeled “Latin American” or simply “Latino”. But Rodriquez states with validity that there are many distinct cuisines within those rubrics: Cuban food is not Mexican, Brazilian is not Argentinian, Caribbean isn’t Peruvian. They share ingredients and traditions, but in the same way that Spanish and Italian or German and Polish do, with both commonalities and departures. As far as he is concerned, this is the food that he knew growing up in the transplanted Puerto Rican culture of urban New York.

The menu offers some items familiar to most diners – arroz con pollo (chicken with rice) for one, and paella, for another, with shrimp, clams, mussels, lobster chunks..and green plantains. Other main courses, though, are likely to surprise non-Latinos: Plantain-crusted red snapper with mashed yuca, perhaps, or churrasco, grilled skirt steak and black bean rice with heat provided by the famous Argentinian chimichurri.  There’s more, a lot more, including sancocho, a flavorful stew of beef, chicken, and Caribbean root vegetables and ensalada de bacalao, a simple but satisfying cod salad. It’s all tasty, filling, and fetchingly presented. You’ve never heard of these things? It’s way past time to get acquainted. And when you do, you’ll discover commonalities with whatever other food you’ve been eating all your life.

Intrepid Jimmy R. has more on his mind than just feeding you. He wants you to come and party. He’s hired a congenial, attractive staff who want to help you in whatever event or proposal or seduction you might wish to celebrate. The music is cranked up as the evening rolls on. Laughter and dancing ensue. Word is out. They don’t take reservations for Friday or Saturday nights and the line goes out the door and down the steps. And that’s in this, our current slough of despair. Can he keep it going? That’s an experiment worth following.

Don Coqui. 115 Cedar Street (hard by exit 16 of the northbound I-95), New Rochelle, NY 10801. 914-632-4900. www.doncoqui.com

New Haven On The Up

There are good reasons why more and more retirees are skipping age-restricted ersatz villages in favor of college towns, the same reasons families and young professionals are making that choice. They have ready access to libraries and art galleries, audit classes and sit in on lectures, attend concerts and theatrical productions, root for the college athletic teams, take advantage of both inexpensive eateries and the event restaurants to which students inevitably take their visiting parents. Most of all, they are invigorated by the vitality and enthusiasm of young people charging into the rest of their lives.

Seeing

Yale University and its hometown New Haven admirably fulfill – exceed – that range of opportunities. Among the diversions they tender are two world-class art repositories, the Yale Center for British Art (www.yale.edu/ycba) and the Yale University Art Gallery (www.artgallery.yale.edu). The former numbers within its collection works by Gainsborough and J.M.W. Turner; the latter, notable French Impressionists and 19th Century American realists. Both are two blocks from the historic New Haven Green. So, too, are the admired Yale Repertory Theatre (www.yalerep.org), with its eight-month season of classical and contemporary plays, and the Shubert Performing Arts Center (www.shubert.com), which mounts a mixed program of traveling plays, musicals, concerts, cabarets, one-night solo acts, and touring dance troupes. The well-regarded Long Wharf Theatre (www.longwharf.org) is a not-for-profit famed for producing plays that not infrequently make the leap to Broadway.

Staying

A visit to New Haven is enormously enhanced by a stay at the distinguished new boutique hotel by the unusual name The Study at Yale (www.studyhotels.com). The founder, who has considerable expertise in the lodging business, came up with the knack-y notion of developing a hotel that affiliated itself with an elite adjacent university. (There is a rumor that the concept will next be applied to Georgetown University.) In a city otherwise served by national hotel and motel chains known to aspire to competence and produce yawns, The Study strives to do nothing wrong. It succeeds.

Reception is by sparkly young women who move tired arriving guests swiftly along to their rooms. Bedrooms are equipped with the expected flat-screen TVs, WiFi and Internet access and unexpected iPod docks and buttery leather chairs with hassocks. Beds eschew the rock-hard ironing board norm in favor of mattresses that gently embrace the body cover warm feather comforters. Stylish contemporary lamps actually aid, not hinder, the reading of the real books occupying the shelves. Spring for one of the junior suites they call “studies” and you get a alcove sitting room with two of those chairs and picture windows looking out over the close-in peaked slate roofs of the Old Campus.

Back at the front desk, the attendants not only happily provide information about current university events but hand out free tickets to Yale games and Yale Rep productions. The lobby has ample seating for small meetings, a wall of books, and a computer for those without laptops (although most guests have their own). Urns of free coffee are available each morning. After they empty out around 8:00am, there is a counter around a corner from the reception desk where fruit and breakfast pastries can be purchased along with  made-to-order cappuchinos.

The in-house dining room Heirloom (see below) achieved instant equality with New Haven’s best restaurants, but keeps prices within reason. The exercise room is open 24 hours. Rack rates start at $269, but you should be able to get a room for less, except during university events like football games, graduation and parent and alumni weekends.

Eating

New Haven is noted among foodies and avid eaters for the claimed (probable) invention of the hamburger sandwich and (possible) American pizza. The little brick building that houses Louis’ Lunch (www.louislunch.com) is the same one where the original Louis formed the first beef patty, broiled it in a gas oven, and served it on white toast with tomato, cheese, or onion.  They do it the same way today, and catsup is still not available.

New Haven pizza is more complicated. It’s formed in shapes that have little resemblance to the perfect circles of the corporate mass-feeding pizzerias, the crust so thin you can all but read a magazine through it. Dozens of local places slide out their versions every day, but the acknowledged leaders are Frank Pepe (www.pepepizzeria.com), Sally’s (www.sallyapizza.com) and Modern Pizza (www.modernpiza.com). The arguments about whose pizza is best is neverendingly contentious.  My choice: Modern.  So there.

At the more elevated end of the local dining experience, there are ever more possibilities for exotic and/or epicurean satisfactions. Among the established venues are Bespoke (www.bespokenewhaven), whose contemporary takes on staples of the fluid New American category place it among the state’s best. Ibiza (www.ibizanewhaven.com) has progressed from tapas bar to a showcase for modern Spanish cooking. Pacifico (www.pacificony.com) explores the similar yet varied cuisines of the South American west coast, spiked with invention. Bentara (www.bentara.com) does the same for Malaysia, which brings together French, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisines. Union League Café (www.unionleaguecafe.com) occupies the building of a grand 19th Century men’s club but combines an updated, largely-French menu with unusually polished and knowledgeable service.

For years, the Union League Café singlehanded held aloft the highest local standards of culinary achievement, but for over a decade it has had to share that position with Zinc (www.zincfood.com). Now, even with more competition, this sleek, cosmopolitan bistro with a Manhattanesque simmer shines as brightly as ever in the New Haven night. The interior is shiny dark minimalism with an eponymous zinc-topped bar in front that looks across Chapel Street to the Green. That’s a good spot to hitch up for a drink and a selection from the appetizing short menu (order carefully, for these “small plates” are almost the same size as the entrées in the dining room. Back there, service is precise and as informative as you might require, without hovering. Banquettes run along the walls, with plenty of elbow room between tables.

The owners may refer to their creations as “Modern American”, but they skip blithely around the globe for inspiration, most notably to Asia. They like spicy, too, as with the appetizer of toasted bread cubes with a peppery Indonesian sambal dipping sauce and the main course hanger steak with tomato aioli tinged with the North African condiment, harissa. That tender cut of beef also comes with black beans and a honey-sweet potato mash, rightfully a customer fave. Ask around and learn that lobster risotto and the smoked duck nachos are at the top of that list as well.  Always current with diners’ concerns, the kitchen bows to the local-organic-sustainable mantra, perhaps most noticeably with the summertime vegetable paella. Much attention is also given to the cheese card and there are thirteen wines available by the glass. This fall, the management jumped into the pizza pool with Kitchen Zinc (www.kitchenzinc.com) , an artisanal pizza parlor and bar down the alley to the right of the main door. It was a instant hit, no easy feat in this pizza-mad town, but these are truly pies of highest order. Where else will you see pizzas with such central toppings as gravlax, broccoli rabe, sopressata, and pancetta. Zinc is open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, for dinner every night.

It isn’t that Heirloom, the restaurant of The Study at Yale Hotel, strikes out for the far reaches of culinary exploration. It’s that they do every item on their largely comfort food menu so devastatingly well.  The mac-and-cheese, crab cake, and crunchy but lightly fried whole belly clam appetizers are supernal renditions that shove most other efforts deep in the shade. Padded leather chairs in a light-filled room with polished wood floors and a building-wide window looking out at Chapel Street submerge any lingering memories of the dismal hotel and restaurant that preceded this one. Patrons at both lunch and dinner tend to be members of the professoriate and conference attendees. But to encourage students to drop by and dilute the solemnity, Heirloom dreams up such promotions at $5 burgers and $4 beers to attract crowds to football nights. On other evenings, the menu turns a little more ambitious. You may think you know sea scallops, but probably not with this amalgamation of pea purée, mission figs, and balsamic glaze. Hotel restaurants just aren’t this much fun, with the added benefit that it’s open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

New Haven is stifling past depictions of urban malaise. Try a weekend.

This is the Queen City of the Mediterranean.

It is a European capital of design. Developers and the goverment continue to rejuvenate formerly distressed neighborhoods. Abandoned buildings from the Middle ages forward are continuously transformed, an unstopping parade of new museums, cultural centers, colleges, residences. Its acclaimed chefs and restaurants set the gastronomic bar ever higher, sending their international colleagues scrambling to keep up.

Barcelona bursts with energy, dawn to dawn. It revises itself. Ceaselessly.

This urban phenomenon has been written about before on aKeyintheDoor (see My Kind of Town, Barcelona Is), though, so here are some more recent, more specific, observations.

Transatlantic flights arrive in Spain in early morning. If you’re lucky, you get two hours’ sleep on the plane. Try to avoid walking into walls. Take a taxi into town (about $25) and hope the hotel has a room available at that hour. Last time, we chose an old favorite, the Colón (www.hotelcolon.es). It faces the cathedral, one of the old city’s principal attractions across a wide, busy plaza, and is at the eastern edge of the historic Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter), which contains remnants of the long Roman occupation, including walls, columns, and an entire underground village. Sundays at noon, a band plays for the dancing of the traditional sardana, and on Thursdays tents are set up for the weekly antiques and collectibles market. The front desk staff is efficient and knowledgeable, if not warm and fuzzy, and they always seem to be able to come up with a room well before the normal check-in time of 2:00pm.

There were two immediate signs of the decline in tourism due to world-wide recession. First, the rack rate for our comfortable room was 204€ (about $285), but we got it for 118€ (about $165). Second, the young bellman who took our bags – an American – took the job because there wasn’t enough business for his regular gig as a tour guide.

A Walk To The Beach

One way of dealing with jet lag after arrival is to get breakfast, take a nap, shower, go find lunch, follow with another nap, then out again for an evening walkabout and dinner. Wake up the next morning on local time. Works for me, anyway. There are any number of walking routes that can be plotted from the Colón. Our choice this time was east three blocks to the Mercat Santa Caterina, the market given a distinctive wavy roof in its recent renovation. Inside, it’s almost as well-provisioned as the better-known La Boquería on La Rambla, but without the cachet and the camera-toting tourists.

Continuing front to back of the market, noting the names of provender likely to appear on your dinner plate that night, walk in the same direction into the La Ribera quarter, which has benefited from the presence of the Museu Picasso, just south of the career Princesa. That street, career Montcada, also passes the Museu Tèxtil i d’Indumentària, which documents Barcelona’s prominent 19th Century textile manufacturing history, and the Museu Barbier-Müller, which houses a small but fine collection of pre-Columbian artifacts. Galleries, bars, and not-too-kitschy souvenir shops occupy most of the rest of the buildings until the street ends in the Passeig del Born, a narrow, two-block plaza with more bars and nightspots. Over to the right is the impressive Gothic parish church Santa Maria del Mar, deserving a brief detour.

Further along in the original direction, the narrow streets open up into plaça del Palau, heralding the proximity of the harbor. In a few more blocks, traversing the furious traffic of the passeig Isabel II, enter Barceloneta, the arm of land that contains the northwestern edge of the Port Vell, the old harbor. Once a darkly ominous place, the harbor was reconfigured as a marina for pleasure boats and an amusement center on the wide jetty called the Moll d’Espanya. It contains a complex of shops, eateries, and an important aquarium, claimed to be the largest in Europe.

We had in mind eating fish, though, not watching them. Barceloneta was historically the fisherman’s quarter, a grid of short compact rowhouses leaning over dark narrow streets. It still bears a working-class identity, including a visible Arab presence, but some apartments here are going for a million dollars and more. Walking down the center of the barrio, enter another market, Mercat Barceloneta, and continue to the back to find  Els Fogons de la Barceloneta, which faces the broad and deep Plaça de la Font. The fixed price menu del día is three courses for only 13€ (about $18.25), a very good deal in what has become an expensive city. But that card is mostly land-based food and we wanted seafood, so we ordered from the tapas section of the menu. Ensaladilla rusa and patatas bravas are potato dishes, but I ordered both anyway because I missed them. The first is , basically, potato salad, with peas and carrots; patatas bravas are fried potatoes with a mildly piquant tomato sauce topped with alioli (garlic mayonaise). These went with a pear and Parmesan salad with mixed greens. The hits, though, were five large grilled sardines and pulpo, chunks of impossibly tender and savory octopus. With a full bottle of wine, two coffees and a generous snifter of Duque de Alba coñac, the total was 63.50€ (about $89).

Before returning to the hotel for, yes, another nap, we walked east to the beach that was reclaimed from rows of dilapidated structures back during preparations for the ’92 Olympics. New restaurants with attractive hawkers out front line the sand’s edge, and in the distance looms a tall glass tower shaped like a sail (or a shark’s fin) – the new W Hotel (www.starwoodhotels.com/wbarcelona). Expect to pay around 300€ (about $420) for a double. On the newly trendy passeig de Joan de Borbó, facing the Old Port, it was designed by the Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill, and is the only hotel in the city with direct access to the beach. Nearby is the eastern base of the Transbordador Aeri, a vertigous cable car that runs far above the harbor on its way to Montjuïc, a hill on the opposite side that now serves as a multi-functional recreational and cultural complex. The ride is not for the acrophobic.

This walk can continue southward, beside the harbor, turning inland along the gentle upward slope of La Rambla, the must-see pedestrian concourse that ends after a little over a mile at the Plaça de Catalunya.

Or, you could take a taxi back to the hotel for a nap.

Tapa to Tapa to Tapa

Not all that long ago, tapas bars were an oddity in Barcelona. They were standard in rival Madrid, a little declassé, like bullfights and flamenco. That’s changed, with a vengeance. They’re everywhere, over a range of traditional to innovative, in glossy and threadbare settings, poorly executed and marvelously accomplished.

A little nomenclature: The word “tapa” means “lid” or “cover”. The practice began when innkeepers laid pieces of bread over tumblers of wine to keep the flies out. One clever barkeep decided to put a piece of cheese or sausage on the bread to attract customers. His competitors noticed. The race was on.

A true tapa is still modest in size – a small saucer of olives or almonds, perhaps. What are now called “tapas” are almost always larger raciones, three or four times larger. Two or three raciones constitute a meal for most people, but a common practice is to order five or six to share with two or three people.

A sub-species of tapa has gained great favor in Barcelona – the Basque version called pintxos. These are, uniformly, served on slices of bread, the toppings virtually infinite in variety. In the customary arrangement, platters of each sort are set out on the counter, which is often twelve feet long or more. Customers ask for a plate and a drink – sparkling hard cider is customary – then browse, filling the plate with as many pintxos as desired. Repeat visits are encouraged. All of the toppings are secured by toothpicks. When it comes time to pay, the bartender or waiter simply adds up the toothpicks to determine the bill. (No fair “accidentally” dropping any of them.)

One of our current favorite pintxo bars is Orio, at carrer Ferran 38 (www.grupsagardi.com), a street that traverses the Barri Gòtic from La Rambla to Via Laietana. It’s relatively new, sleeker than most, with high common tables inside and conventional seating in the adjacent alley. The barmen are congenial and tolerant of any confusion about proper procedures. And, the pintxos are varied and most tempting, but take it slow – start with three. You can always return, and waiters keep circulating with trays of fresh hot items from the kitchen. Our last time, we avidly consumed eleven of them, including two kinds of deep-fried croquetas – one of cod, the other potatoand piquillo peppers stuffed with brandade. All of the photos in the left in this section were taken at Orio. We were more than full, and our check was only 32.43€ ($45) with two beers and tax included, far less than a conventional three-course meal.

That Man’s Brother Is My Father’s Son

To have issues with Ferran Adrià is to consign oneself to a distinct minority. He is probably the most famous chef in the world, the iconic inventor of what has been labeled molecular gastronomy.  Star chefs and noted food writers from around the world flock to genuflect at the altar of his restaurant El Bulli in rural Catalunya. Hard cases like Anthony Bourdain go all soft and gooey in the presence of Adrià’s creations.

Adrià was responsible for foams, the flavored air that subsequently settled over dishes across two continents. He has seriously employed cough drops among his ingredients. He only keeps his restaurant in the mountains 100 miles north of the city open six months a year, retreating to his Barcelona laboratory the rest of the year to deconstruct food components. All this effort to make edible disparate ingredients that are only destined to become quite another product in a few hours or a day or two. This is plain foolishness, and very costly. Thus have I joined the company of grumpy naysayers.

That said, the acclaim accorded the Barcelona tapas emporium Inopia, at carrer Tamarit 104 (www.barinopia.com), got my attention despite certain familial connections. The chef-proprietor is Albert Adrià, younger brother of the maestro. He acts as pastry chef at big bro’s place when it’s open and opened Inopia to keep busy. But this isn’t that. Mario Batali, a super chef who places flavor, taste, texture, and aroma above arty laboratory fabrications, calls Inopia the best restaurant in Barcelona. Good enough for me.

Trouble was, we only had one night left in town, and it was a Saturday night – super-busy, to be sure. What the hell. What kind of foodies would we be if we didn’t try at what might be our only chance.

It was a 6.50€ ($9) taxi ride away, at the far western edge of lower Eixample, the middle band of the city constructed in the 19th Century. There was, as expected, a crowd around the entrance, which was roped off. The doorman was a short, tough-looking little guy in black who took our name and said “Una hora, mas o menos.” (“An hour, more or less.”)

We settled in, remaining close to the door, counting people exiting, raising our hopes, dashed as patrons who arrived after us were waved through. The door guy made no bones about admitting friends, family of staff, regulars, and pros from other restaurants, before those of us unknown to him or the manager. We felt like aged club kids at the portal of Studio 54.

After an hour, more or less, Door Guy took pity on us and let us pass. No seats, but we were inside! He brought us wine to hold us until they could take our order. Apart from keeping lists of supplicants and reservations and clearing an occasional counter, he periodically stepped up next to the tv, turned down the sound, and announced, at the very top of his lungs, that, for example, “NO HAY MAS PIMIENTOS!” Or whatever else the kitchen ran out of during the evening.

Inopia is, essentially, a high-class tapas bar, not in decor or situation, but in the quality of its food. Except for one large table, seating is on stools. No matter. The ingredients are fresh from the morning’s market, and most of the preparation is to order. After our wait with noses pressed to the window, we were ravenous. We inhaled, in order: Pulpo a la Gallega (chunks of octopus as tender as butter), four fat, white, madly flavorful  anchovies (miles from the hairy bottled kind), four croquetas (silky potato with chunks of jamón Ibérico, quite possibly the best ham in the world), a bean salad, classic pa amb tomaquet (crusty grilled bread rubbed with garlic and tomato pulp and drizzled with olive oil)…and some other stuff I can’t remember. To be sure, these were traditional tapas with just a few minor twists, but it will spoil you for any other of its competitors. With wine, espressos, a brandy, and tax, the tab came to 63.05€ ($88.25), every euro deserved.

Girona is a city of stairways, all of them going up. Or so it seems.

The ancient Catalan city covers a craggy promontory rearing above the juncture of the Onyar and Ter Rivers. It was a defensive position lusted after by the original Iberians, colonial Romans, the invading Arabs, and by Charlemagne, who took the city in 785 in an attempt to cut off the Moorish advance into France. Fortifications rose, were destroyed, and built again. Many of them are still extant, protecting a web of narrow alleys that rise ever upward, gathering at the top for sweeping views over the rumpled landscape of plains and abrupt hills.

Girona was also home to a thriving Jewish community in the Middle Ages, right up until the Catholic Kings Isabel and Fernando ordered all Jews and Muslims who refused to covert to Christianity expelled in 1492 (a momentous year, that). Virtually all signs of that sub-society were erased, and until only a couple of decades ago, the Jewish presence went unremarked. Once the dictator Franco croaked and the country set about establishing a sturdy democracy, interest grew in resurrecting the story of Girona’s Jews for reasons both commerical – tourism – and cultural – who are we? It wasn’t easy, there being no Jews left to spearhead the reclamation. But scholars and community activists persisted. Evidence was unearthed. A couple of suspected synagogue locations were pinpointed, a museum created – the Museu dels Jueus.

A visit to the old city best starts with a stop at the information office next to the Parc de la Devesa, on the west side of the Onyar, where maps and walking tours can be obtained. It’s a short walk from there across the Pont (Bridge) d’en Gómez, toward the imposing landmark cathedral on the opposite side of the river. The colorful houses at waterside, drying laundry unfurled, provide an understandaby popular photo op.

Inside the lower quarter are shadowed lanes with attractive shops purveying clothing, ceramics, and not too smothering selections of tourist gimcracks, with café tables set out under trees in wide spots at street intersections, sometimes centered around a splashing fountain. Don’t ignore the possibilities of frequent stops, because the walk is inexorably up. UP.

By fortuitous choice of path, you might reach the back of the Gothic Cathedral that dominates the skyline from below. Then you can merely stroll around to the front and enter through the Baroque facade. Otherwise, a frontal assault requires mounting a daunting staircase of many broad steps and a stop to catch breath. It’s a worthy structure, though, a single center aisle to the largest Gothic nave anywhere. The adjoining Romanesque cloisters, older than the church itself, demand a look. They remain from the church that preceded this one.

Nearby are the Banys Arabs – Arab Baths – the second most popular attraction in town. One wee explication, though. These “Arab” baths were built about four centuries after the Moorish armies were pushed out of this region entirely. They were constructed, nonetheless, according to Muslim prescription. The central room has a pool with pillars supporting what is called a lantern, a sort of open-sided cupola. Beyond this are three more chambers devoted, in turn, to hot, cold, and warm baths. It’s easy enough to conjure couples and groups of robed merchants and administrators making deals over steam and ladles of cold water.

Exiting the Baths, see ahead the arched entrance to the Passeig Arqueológic (Archeological Passage), a parkway that ascends, quite steeply, beneath poplars and fir trees, with scenic overlooks at frequent intervals. Apart from the views, there isn’t much else up there, so turn back downhill and descend to the commercial part of the old quarter for lunch. The better restaurants start opening at 1:00.Those that open earlier are inevitably mean little tourist snares, with lots of false smiles, brusque service, and indifferent food once you have been lured inside and settled at table. Better to settle for sandwiches at a likely looking bar or café.

Allow at least two or three hours to take it all in.

Pricey Spanish Spice

There are reasons why saffron is so exprensive. The dainty purple crocuscrocus sativus – is a cousin of those pretty little blossoms that pop through the last snow cover of late winter in the northern climes of the U.S. But it’s only a family resemblance. What’s needed to make saffron are the three, and only three, stigmas of the purple crocus. They can only be harvested at dawn on the 15 to 20 days the flower blooms in October and the stigmas must be handpicked before being laid out to dry – the most arduous of stoop labors. It takes at least 14,000 of the thread-like stigmas to comprise a mere ounce of the product.

That ounce, at least of the most prized Spanish variety, can cost up to $1,200, a mere gram (with 28 grams to the ounce) as much as $44. True, an ounce is more often in the $110 to $250 range and grams from $4.50 to $7.50. But still.

Saffron harvests aren’t exclusive to Spain. Turkey, India, and Iran are major suppliers, and even French farmers are starting to cultivate the crocus. But those in the know have long prefered the Spanish variety, both because it is of reliably high quality and is the most consistently pungent and flavorful. Adulteration of the spice is all too common from other sources, especially in its powder form. (Think of the cocaine dealer who steps on his product with laxatives and powdered milk.)

The trouble is, the expense prevents home cooks from using enough saffron to bring up its richly exotic aroma, leaving only its appealing yellow color. Paella, pilafs, risottos, and bouillabaise are left the poorer. Ideally, the amount of saffrom called for in most American recipes should be doubled or tripled. And to wrench the most flavor and canary coloring from the spice, soak it in warm water for at least fifteen minutes (some sources recommend up to two hours) before adding it to the other ingredients.

But the cost! Here’s a semi-secret tip: On your next trip to Barcelona – you are planning to go to that vibrant Mediterranean city, aren’t you? – walk down Carrer Princesa and on past the turn to the Picasso Museum. The street seems to fade to less and less interest, but keep going. You’re looking for an unobtrusive store, Angel Jobal, at #38. It sells primarily to the restaurant trade, with packages of spices and teas far too large for home use. But at the corner of the front counter are plastic boxes of thread saffron in manageable portions. A container here of five grams cost only $17.40 in late September 2009, considerably less than in most retail outlets.

The Triangle Dalí

Who better to design and build the perfect monument to his genius than the eccentric Surrealist Salvador Dalí himself. That he did – the Teatre-Museu Dalí, in Figueres. That otherwise largely undistinguished town was his birthplace, about 120 miles northeast of Barcelona in the far northeast corner of Spain. He put it on the cultural map – his museum is said to be the second-most popular in the country, after the Prado, in Madrid.

You’ll know it when you see it. A former theater, it now looks like a brick-red castle, with adornments. The round tower at the corner has giant eggs perched precariously on its roof. Dalí lived in an apartment up there during the last years of his life. He died in 1989, and his tomb is also on site. Approaching closer, the thousands of yellow protuberances that stud the walls prove to be puffy pumpkin-sized ceramic objects, no two exactly alike. They look like shiny little Pillsbury Doughboys.

Rounding a corner into the entry plazas, visitors come upon assemblages of truck tires stacked twenty feet high, with life-sized representations of mythic figures. More statues stand on a balcony above the front doors.

All that is mere preamble. Pass through into a vast circular atrium. Looming above is a nude warrior woman (or earth mother) of heroic anatonomical proportions, her arms apart in a welcoming (or forbidding) embrace. On the floor behind her is a vintage American car. There are mannequins inside. They are damp, because periodically it rains in there. More statues fill wall niches. Up a few stairs, on what amounts to a stage, are large murals and entrances to the staircases that lead to three more floors of galleries.

Facing the atrium, gaze upon the large painting on the right. It depicts a row of Venuses without arms. Unremarkable, you might think, but Dalí loved tricks and magic and illusions. Hidden in the painting is a partial portrait of the celebrated matador Manolete. Squint, and look very closely: The crease in the belly of the second Venus forms his mouth, below that, his chin. Her right breast is his nose.

Upstairs, Dalí continues to amuse and titilate. One room, devoted to Mae West, has a lip-shaped sofa and a chimney that is also a nose. Look for the chest of drawers in the shape of a woman’s body and the many paintings of his wife, model, and muse, Gala. He made room for works by his artist friends, including the like-minded Duchamp and Fortuny.

The two other points of the triangle dalinià, while hardly as mindblowing as the museum, certainly serve up their unique revelations of the artist’s caprices and devilty.

He bought a 12th Century castle for Gala in rugged country about 15 miles east of Girona, now known as the Castell de Púbol, and filled it with oddments and jokes. A stuffed horse stands in one room; the cover on two radiators is painted with a picture of the real radiators behind it. When Dalí presented the castle (a.k.a. Casa-Museu Castell Gala Dalí) to his enamorata, he provided another gift, promising never to show up without her specific invitation, in writing. This thoughtfully permitted her to accept visits from a stream of young lovers from the village, a practice she continued well into her senior years.

Dalí also purchased a seaside cottage in Port Lligat, near the village of Cadaqués, about 30 miles east of Figueres. It was rescued some years ago from decades of neglect, and still only small groups are permitted to enter at a time. There is a giant egg marking the place, a rearing polar bear near the entrance, an electrically powered easel in the studio, and a reflecting pool in the rear patio in the shape of a very large phallus. The artist had a rich fantasy life.

While there are local bus connections to these outlying sites, a rental car would be preferable. Make arrangements ahead of time. While the Figueres museum is open all year (except Mondays), Gala’s castle is closed from November to mid-March, the Port Lligat house from early January to mid-March.

A relatively easy daytrip can be arranged from Barcelona to Girona (see below for a description of that city) to Figueres and back through Catalunya Bus Turistic (www.barcelona-on-line.es). They’re the same people who conduct the worthwhile step-on, step-off tours in Barcelona itself. The buses used are comfortable enough, the guides don’t chatter endlessly, and the schedule permits substantial time for independent exploration in both cities. They leave from Plaça de Catalunya in central Barcelona at 8:30am and return around 8:00pm. The fare is 69€ (a little over $100) per person.

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