After finishing my final year of medical training, my pain medicine fellowship and before starting the rest of my career, my wife Missy and I travelled with our almost 2-year old daughter Ella through France.
We rented a hybrid car and proceeded to eat and drink our way through the countryside. We visted tiny villages, low-key wineries and centuries old cathedrals and castles.
Paris-> Normandy (Giverny) -> Champagne -> Luxembourg -> Alsace -> Burgundy -> Loire Valley -> Paris
Trip highlights and surprises:
French people were so warm and welcoming everywhere we went. It may have been due to the fact that we traveled with our daughter but we spent time with so many charming individuals.
Our favorite villages were in Alsace: Strasborg, Colmar and Kayersberg (but every town was charming)
We did not research wineries. If you are a connoisseur, this would be imprudent. We drove around and would stop into family run, small batch distributors for free wine tastings and tours in Champagne, Burgundy and Loire Valley.
The best restaurant, turned out to be the most amazing eating experinece of our lives (at the time) at Maison Lamelois. Every bite of the seven courses from the three michelin star restaurant was unique and incredible. We are so thankful to Amazon Kindle for providing the distraction to our two year old daughter to allow us to savor every bite.
Second place for the second best restaurant was La Maison d’a cote in the Loire Valley, which featured foraged locally sourced creative dishes.
If you are looking for a chill, intimate, elegant hotels, we can recommend:
After our relaxing time in Essauoira, we made the mistake of returning to Marrakesh for New Years. This was a mistake because we initially planned on going to the night club Le Comptoir Darna for New Years but soon discovered that it would cost over 300 euros a person to get in. In addition, we were getting really annoyed by the constant barrage of Moroccans trying sell us things. We decided just to eat at the stands in the square and try to fight boredom by playing cards and walking around the square until 2010 came and we happily fell asleep in our dirty hotel at 12:15.
The next morning we took a train to the Casablanca airport and flew to Madrid. We read that the trains would be full on January 1st, so we freaked out and purchased a reserved first class ticket the day before. It turned out that this was really not necessary and taking the 7am train we would have had no problems getting seats the day of.
In Madrid, the weather was considerable warmer (although still cold) and we spent our last night in a small Flamenco club- Cardamomo- becoming mesmerized by the fast plucking of the guitar, the passionate singing and the intense explosive dancing. It was a stunning and exotic way to end our wonderful trip.
It was Sunday when we visited so both museums were free. Well El Prado was free after 5pm, and we had to wait in a long line, but it moved at lightening speed once they opened up the gates.
We first went to La Reina Sofia, the modern art museum that holds a treasure chest of modern art gems, especially Dali, Miro, Picasso, Picabia to name some artists that blew me away in particular.
There were Dali paintings that I swore I confused with Picasso, in a cubist style that hinted of a reverence for the icon. It was interesting to see a Dali portrait of Luis Bruenuel (a surrealistic director whom he later produced La Chien Andeluz with- where a scene shows a man slicing his eyeball), which is a straight forward, strong but yet not what you think of as Dali. He painted that when he was 21 years old. Next to that painting is a still life the artist painted 3 years later which shows the ecclectic dance of images, insects and other oddities dancing on the painting, a glimpse at what crystal clear dreamlike madness will come to caracterize Dali and is portrayed wonderfully in the museum.
As I came to room 206 in the museum, I quickly felt like a thunderous punch aimed directly at my gut. It was Picasso´s Guernica. A large backdrop of sorrow, loss, destruction and chaos coming in the midst of the Spanish Civil War as Franco took over Spain and dismantled life as Picasso knew it in Spain. The central focus of the painting, a minimalist bull with its body contorted in the top right corner of the work. In the center of the painting, untranslatable images, chaos and unraveling and as you go to the edges of the painting, visages of sorrow in bubble faces burning to the ground, disembodied arms holding weapons, a cubist image of a mother clutching a baby. The humanity of the humans is the un-uniqueness of the faces. They are no one, but they are you. There is a horse in the center of the painting, underneath a crying eyeball sun, with a dagger coming through its mouth and teeth dripping paint like blood. This horse, the military industrial complex, has brought pain distruction, suffering with no end or hope in sight and this comes through in the eyes of all the humans. The eyes, the crying eyes though, all face the bull. Like the eyes of Renaisance paintings focusing on the crusified Christ are all directed to the unifying, dying symbol of Spain. Second to the horror of the masterpiece, are the three rooms dedicated to haunting sketches and other works by Picasso in the creation of his work.
Later that day, we visted El Prado. When I first walked through the doors, I could feel the modern greats that I hold so dear, walk through the same exact halls and admire the works of Bosch (or in Spanish El Bosco), Brueghel, Goya, El Greco and Velazquez and others who mastered their contemporaries and then proceeded to push the boundaries of art that walled everyone else in.
In particular a fancied Hyrenomous Bosch, who has been speculated to be influenced by Ergot alkaloid, a mold that grows on rye and wheat that has a chemical structure similar to Lysergic acid (LSD). Even though this is speculation, I have over the years accepted it in my imaginations as being true whether it is actually factual or not because his works are far freaking out. They are these scenes of heaven and hell of these characters and strange creatures in various acts of the surreal. Men with beaks like birds wandering about, a pig dressed in a nuns cap copulating with a red ¨person,¨ they are so intricate and crazy and so rare. Oh yeah, he painted it in the 1490s. It looks wild for even today´s standards.
When a star explodes, mass becomes so dense that all the constituent atoms become so compact that a black hole forms creating a violent disruption on the fabric of space time. If you picture a marble rolling around in orbit in a funnel, as it gets closer to the hole, it speeds up until it dissapears. This is the effect of the black hole on all surrounding paricles, projectiles and planets. Las Meninas, Diego Velazquez’s masterpiece is this black hole in the Prado.
I could not sleep for a second in my hostel bed because I ate too many late night churros and chocolate. So after a long night, I woke Missy up early to see the Palacio Real before heading over to Barajas airport. To our dismay, 3 inches of icy slush covered the ground as more sleet pelted us from the sky. The uncomfortable and short visit of what supposedly is a magnificent palace was only the beginning of our troubles.
Cold, wet, and sick of Madrid’s weather, we returned to our hostel, picked up our bags, hopped onto the subway and head to the airport. With little surprise, we came across a throng of pissed off would-be passengers, discovering their flights were canceled. We were one of those passengers. We were supposed to leave at 1pm and were transferred to an 8pm flight, so Missy and I began brainstorming how best to kill 7 hours in a Spanish airport. The prevailing idea- eat 25 chicken McNuggets at the McDonalds and pass out on the dirty dirty floor…. We woke up 4 hours later and checked into our flight, which would also be delayed and did not leave until 2am.
After landing in Casablanca and going through customs, it was 4am, so we decided to kill some time in the airport before catching the 6am train that would bring us to Rabat. We did not shed any tears missing our stay in Casa because we heard there was nothing special, and instead it allowed our first impression of Morocco to be made by the imperial city and political capital. Now a this time I have slept for less than 5 hours in the past 2.5 days, so I am delirious to the point of hallucination but after we took the cab to the Kasbah Oudaias, not even a scizophrenic on LSD could fantasize something so surreal and magical as this village overlooking the river Bou Regreg. The kasbah- which is basically a medieval fortification or castle- was built in 1150AD and flourished today as a neighborhood with wandering streets with blue, turquoise and cyan colored walls broken up by elaborate and ornate doors that would make you feel as if knocking was a form of desecration.
After grabbing the freshest glass of just squeezed orange juice (literally just picked off the ubiquitous orange trees), we walked into the medina- or market place where no cars but noise permeated as we got a small taste of commerce in an Arabic city.
We hailed a cab and returned to the train station and went to Meknes and checked into Riad D’Or. A riad is a restored old manshion, usually undertaken by Europeans capitalizing on affortable property values and labor in Morocco to return the splendor and mystery to the old walls in a modern interpretation. Riad D’or is truly something special, with every turn beckoning wonder to the intricacies of Islamic decor and there were many turns and nooks in this home.
We napped heavily and then explored the relaxed Medina before settling into the restaurant- One Thousand and One Nights which was basically like eating in someone’s home. Literally. There were little kids running around and there was a bed sitting right next to the kitchen. It was here that we met Melody and Christoff, a Belgian couple our age finishing their meal as we ordered who we started chatting with and would become instrumental later on in out trip.
-In 2010, the Rabat train station did not have a bag check (as the Frommer’s guide mentions) so we took a taxi to the busiest station- a 30 dh taxi ride away- to hold our bags during the stay
-Make sure you have a cab put on the meter in Rabat and Meknes
-It is normal for the taxi driver to pick up extra passengers while bringing you to the destination if there is room
-Haggling can be fun, just realize there is a science behind it- whatever price they initially give you, assume that half that amount is really the cost, so try as hard as you can to get bellow that number (half initially mentioned) as possible. Your best tactic- walk away. If you name your goal price- assuming it is fair- pretend to walk away when they do not meet it and they will bend. Don’t get lured into the tricks they use such as “name your last price” or quick hand shakes or compliments. Stick to your price and you will get it as long as walk away. They will usually be pissed off after wards, but that is a sign of a job well done.
Missy and I escaped the 25 degree frigid Philadelphia weather to land in the sunny, Mediterranean, Spanish capital of Madrid. The temperature here was also 25 degrees. I can’t tell you how many times I heard que Frioooo! At least Missy and I, walking down the cobblestone streets, admiring the intricate Spanish Colonial architecture with booger icicles forming on our noses were not the only ones uncomfortable.
After checking into our hostel, we went restaurant exploring and came across La Maceiras, a loud, colorful, crowded, I guess the key descriptor would be energetic tapas place. Missy and I downed a bottle of wine with our dinner and then headed to a Cerveceria (or Madrid bar) where we sat down, ordered one beer and they gave us a tiny (like 6oz) glass of beer and a plate of pork chunks with bone, they literally took down pieces of pig leg hanging from the wall (oh yeah the place smelled like pig soaked in eggwhites), chop it up into meals and save the trashy parts as a chewy go along when you order beer. Pretty awkward.
The next day, a Sunday, we had a hardcore tourist day checking out El Retiro, La Reina Sofia and El Prado. To see a description of my museum impressions, see my blog on El Prado/La Reina Sofia.
Madrid teems with a unique flair. It is regal, yet fun, with a sense of history that permeates both the walls from the narrow, cobble stoned roles and the wide promenades that have seen many historical figures- Pizzaro, Cortes, Franco, Columbus to name a few- march through the streets with blood and glory on their shoulders.
Very clean, standard hostel, large, many floors, kind of too sterile with little personality, bunk beds, they charge for towels. Say you are less than 26years old or they charge you (significantly) more. We paid 45 euros a night for the two of us in a 6 person room.
This hostel is amazing. We paid 55 euros for a very nice bedroom with TV, shared bathroom. Great staff, clean, new, great location. Highly recommended.
In Madrid, there is the museum of ham. They love pig. A typical daily eating experience is a tiny breakfast, a big lunch and late night dinner of tapas. We were not blown away by our culinary experience, but it may have been circumstantial because we may not have gone to the must eat spots.
La Maceiras- Tapas place, the food was just okay, it is Galician and hearty. You go for the atmosphere which is crowded and fun.
Azul Cafe- cute little coffee/lunch place that serves yummy food. I recommend it for a little bite to eat.
Restaurant Botin- the oldest restaurant in the world and if life forms on other galaxies do not have restaurants then the oldest restaraunt in the universe. Pretty cool ancient brickwalls inside, despite being touristy. Try to eat in the cellar- serving food since 1590. The food- suckling pig- was good not great and in all the cheasy nearby touristy restaraunts this was the most expensive. You go here to say you ate at the olderst restaurant.
Chocolateria de San Gines- Churros and chocolate. Deliciously dangerous. I ate too much because one Missy dared me and two it was too delicious. Afterwards, worst night of sleep ever. I had nightmares of churros turning into snakes, grabbing my ankles and drowning me in a dark brown sea.