Category Archives: travel

Kyoto – Days 1 & 2

Yes, I have in fact been back in the U.S. for over a week – what of it? I couldn’t manage to motivate myself to write on the flight back, despite the 10 hours spent in the air…  I actually got some sleep, though not enough to stave off pretty severe jet lag that I haven’t quite fully shaken (though when I woke up at 3:00 this morning, I was able to fall back to sleep by 4:00 – so that’s an improvement).

At any rate, we departed our hotel in Tokyo via taxi, laden with four suitcases and three backpacks – including Chris’ seven (yes – seven) pairs of shoes he’d packed. Our trip to Tokyo station went smoothly, we managed to schlep all of our bags to the appropriate platform and boarded our nozomi train to Kyoto.  I slept for a good part of the two-and-a-half our voyage, though I did wake up long enough for a nice glimpse of snow-capped Mt. Fuji on the horizon.

Pine trees at Nijo Castle

At Kyoto station, we quickly found the ANA Hotel shuttle which took us and our myriad bags to our home for the next few days, right across from Nijo Castle. The hotel was serviceable, if not quite as roomy or fancy as our place in Tokyo – though the staff were certainly as kind and helpful as ever. I think our biggest complaint was that the butt-cleansing toilet seat was noticeably inferior to the one we’d had in Tokyo – even at it’s highest pressure, it just didn’t do the job completely, if you know what I mean.  I should point out that the inferior toilet seat was not Toto brand – which I think was the primary reason for its sub-par performance.

Since it was only mid-afternoon, we got started on our sightseeing at Nijo Castle, an impressive collection of buildings and some lovely gardens dating from the mid-1800′s. As we toured the castle’s interior, we got to experience “nightingale floors” – wooden floor boards designed to emit squeaks and squeals to alert the occupants of any ninjas trying to sneak in and kill them.  I’m thinking of having them installed in our bedroom so I have some forewarning of when our 17-pound cat is about to leap onto my chest (or balls) as I drift off to sleep…

We didn’t spend too much time here, as they start clearing people out of the place at around 4:00. So, off we went for the #12 bus as we’d been advised to do by the front desk, bound for Gion, the center of old Kyoto.  We didn’t see any geisha, but we had a nice stroll down the main drag, popping in and out of shops selling fans, ceramics and sweets. At the end of the street was the Yasaka shrine, a bright-orange-and-gold affair, adorned with lanterns. Our arrival was at twilight, a really lovely time to see the temple and the surrounding park, where the trees had started putting on their fall colors.  A peaceful counterpoint to the hustle and bustle of our nine days in Tokyo.

Ramen with pork cheek in miso broth.

We spent the next hour or so trying to find a tempura restaurant we’d read about and had a rather difficult time of it – though the streets we meandered through were charming… We did finally find the place – closed for the evening. We hadn’t bothered to note the entry in the guidebook that indicated it was closed on Thursdays.  Thursdays? Really?  Anyway, added it to our itinerary for Friday night (at least we’d be able to find it easily…) and set off in search of Santoka, a ramen place that was supposed to be quite good.

And it was.  Took us a bit of time to find – despite it being exactly where we thought it was, in a complex of restaurants right along the river.  But of course it was the only one that indicated its name only in Japanese, so we were rather slow in identifying it…  But the ramen was excellent – great noodles in a rich miso broth, served with braised pork cheeks – tender and scrumptious.  The evening was a bit on the chilly side, so it was a perfect choice.

Next stop: a gay bar.  Or so we thought… Still not really sure.  I guess it was too early to go out – we were the only customers in the place…  And our drinks were ¥1000 – about $10, which isn’t too bad…  Though there was also a cover charge…  So our two rounds of drinks wound up costing ¥6000.  I think we could have drunk everything in our hotel rooms mini-bar and still have spent less.  But we’re on vacation, so what’re you gonna do?

Up early-ish the next morning, bound for Kyoto Station where we met up with Johnny Hillwalker, a well-known local guide for a walking tour.  There were about 20 people on the tour, so a manageable size. And what a tour it was…  We were on the go for over five hours, exploring temples, shrines and the warren of narrow streets housing family workshops.

At Higashi Hongan-ji. Only one of these kids seems to like pigeons.

Our first stop was the Higashi Hongan-ji temple. A rather amazing looking place – though the information Johnny shared with us was probably the highlight, including an overview of religion in Japan. “The Japanese are 99% Buddhist, 99% Shinto and 1% Christian” – his point being that most people follow tenets and observe rituals of both Buddhism and Shintoism – even the Christians…  And that everyone pretty much just gets along when it comes to such matters…  Unlike other many other countries and cultures.

Handsome

From there, we ambled along through the surrounding streets, visiting a few other smaller temples and shrines; passed by a geisha school; visited a couple of family-run businesses, including a fan-maker and a potter; saw the original Nintendo, which long before it manufactured video games was in the business of making playing cards; were treated to some tofu-skin-wrapped rice balls; visited a sweet shop; and ended our tour near Kiyomizu temple, where Johnny encouraged us to continue exploring on our own…  Chris and I both really enjoyed the tour – we learned a lot and explored parts of Kyoto we’d probably not’ve found on our own.

Mmmmm... Collagen...

We took Johnny’s advice and headed for Kiyomizu. We climbed up a long street on a hill, lined with shops catering to tourists (though not hideously touristy) and stopped for an ice cream on the way up – where, for reasons I have yet to grasp, one of the four flavors offered was “collagen.” Something lost in translation maybe? I kept urging Chris to get the collagen, but he stuck with green tea…

We arrived at the temple and it was grand – high atop a hill on the eastern side of Kyoto, surrounded by autumn trees bursting with red, gold and yellow. The temple itself is large, with a large walkway jutting out over the hill and affording wonderful views of the city below us.

Navigating the love stones.

There are also several shrines on the temple grounds, one of which is dedicated to a god of love. In addition to the tons of charms and other accoutrements being hawked, there was a pair of “love stones” – two rocks set 10 meters apart that one must navigate end-to-end with eyes closed. Doing so successfully means you’ll find love.  Chris was able to do it – though he indicated he’d cheated by peaking…  Hmmm – not sure I want to analyze that in too much detail.  As for me, I made it too, thanks in large part to shouted instructions from my beloved…  “Stay left…  No! LEFT! Not that much!!  Too far right now… Oh my god what is wrong with you? JUST GO STRAIGHT!  Are you retarded?”  But I made it, to much applause from some onlookers – I guess they were surprised to see a retard make it…

Note that they all tore their masks off before posing. Also, shoes are exellent!

Another shrine was mobbed with school kids lined up to partake of one of the three streams of water, said to impart success in studies. This was also the setting for one of my favorite photos from this trip.  A trio of boys saw me taking pictures and started mugging for the camera (I especially loved that they all tore off their H1N1 masks as soon as I aimed the lens in their direction). As we were walking off, their teacher stopped us, asking if we’d pose with the kids.  Of course we said yes and were instantly swarmed with kids.  I managed to hand my camera off to her for a shot with my camera…  It was great fun.

One of my favorite pictures from the whole trip.

Dinner that night at Ozawa, the tempura place we’d tried to get to the night before.  No room at the counter, so we ate in a tatami room – which was fine, other than the fact that Chris and I both had difficulty getting back on our feet after dinner.  But they brought us about 12 small courses, two or three at a time: shrimp, gingko nuts, white fish, corn (which was sublime – Chris compared it to Michigan summer corn from his childhood). After dinner, we walked around a bit, then headed back to the hotel.  We wanted to get an early start on our day trip to Nara.  More to come on that leg of our journey…

Tokyo – Our Last Few Days

I didn’t have a chance to blog for a few days – then I had to recover from one of the worst hangovers I’ve experienced in recent memory.  It took me a good 36 hours to even approach feeling better…  And once I’d gotten that far behind, the task of catching up was just too overwhelming.  But I wrote this while sitting in the business class lounge at Kansai, waiting for our flight to Seoul, where we had a two-hour layover before heading home…

Fantastic steaks at Beacon

So where did I leave off?  Ah yes – Chris and I were headed to have a Western dinner.  We’d both been doing pretty well eating Japanese food, but the temptation to go someplace where everything was recognizable and familiar was hard to resist.  And the restaurant turned out to be excellent – a place called Beacon in Shibuya. A bit on the fancy side in a sleek and modern setting – though to our surprise, the evening we were there was the weekly barbecue night.  Chris had an excellent bowl of black bean chili, while I got the last five raw oysters in the joint – really good.  For dinner we both got steaks, which were wonderful – grilled just right and perfectly seasoned with salt, pepper and just a hint of cayenne for a bit of extra zip.  Accompanied by shoestring fries that were crispy, piping hot and fantastic (oh, and so were the onion rings). Also splurged on a great bottle of Ramey chardonnay – one of our favorites. It was a great night – really revived us both.

On Monday, we took the train out to Chiba City to see the Tokyo Motor Show. Saw some pretty cool cars and other crazy vehicles.  Honda had some sort of thing shaped like an “8” that one sat on and it drove around – looked fun and potentially deadly.  I think the only thing that was a little disappointing was that this was a strictly Japanese auto show, so we didn’t get to see any of the concept cars from Europe, Korea or North America.  But of course this was made up for by the wacky “sketch” Honda used to introduce their latest concept car, which is just a little box of a thing that gets some power from solar and can apparently chat with your friends (we weren’t completely clear as to how this worked or why one might want it – but judging from the smiling boys and girls onstage and the cute cartoon video, everyone just loved it!)

After taking the train back, we returned to Harajuku to do a bit more shopping and attempt to find the G-Star store which we’d had no luck tracking down on our last visit. We fought our way down the same insanely crowded little main drag, with a few stops to look at clothes that were too youthful for a couple of old queens (not to mention generally not available in sizes of sufficient girth), back up the fancier main shopping street and had a rather nice walk home on this chilly evening.

Just another Tuesday night on Takeshita Dori in Harajuku

For dinner, we had something of a “when world’s collide” meal at Fonda de la Madragana, a local Mexican joint with reputation as Tokyo’s best (or so said the guidebook). The place is done up in the usual terra cotta tile, stucco and cast-iron decor one expects in such a place.  Of course, we were seated by a very proper Japanese hostess – though our order for tacos and margaritas was taken by a gentleman who appeared to be Mexican. I never got a chance to ask, since the rest of our meal was served by a Sri Lankan.  I didn’t know which language to order in – my broken Spanish or my far-more broken Japanese.  This being Tokyo, I just did what I always did – ordered in English.  I just made sure to speak very loudly and slowly, as if I were speaking to someone slow-witted – you know, the way an American should speak English when abroad… (I kid, of course).

The food was quite good, and as provincial as it may sound, it was nice having another meal with no mystery ingredients.  And the serving of guacamole was huge and tasty (OK, it needed salt, but I’m not one to quibble) and reasonably priced.  I was concerned that avocado might be sufficiently exotic to the locale that it’d be a miserly portion (as is so often the case in the U.S.). Tacos also good, meat tender and savory and margaritas decent.

¡Ay Caramba!

And speaking in hindsight, I think I’m going to blame my consumption of three margaritas for what happened later that evening… I was fine when we left the restaurant, headed to our favorite boite Dragon for our usual nightcap. We had a drink or two there, checked out one other place that was dead as a doornail and then headed to Arty Farty, another fun little place in Ni-Chome with a dance floor (we’d spent part of Halloween night there). In front of Arty Farty, I literally bumped into a guy and muttered my standard “sumimasen” to which he responded, “Oh sorry about that.” Obviously, it’s not unusual for a Japanese to speak English – but turned out this guy lives in Los Angeles. He asked us about Arty Farty, whether it was fun, etc., so we all went in together and bought each other a few rounds of drinks. Turns out our new friend, Joji-san, is originally from Tokyo but has been in the U.S. for seven years – he was here visiting his family.

Decisions, decisions...

Anyway, Arty Farty was kind of dull, so back we went to Dragon which had livened up a bit.  Chit-chatted with some of the bartenders and regulars we’d befriended, more rounds were bought and a fine time was had by all.  Chris and I decided to head off and check out one other bar then head home.  The other place we went to was completely dead, so we decided to call it a night…  And then fate intervened. We bumped into Joji-san again.  He suggested some other places we could visit – other places that we’d be unlikely to find on our own what with the language barrier and all.

And that’s all she wrote…  I have vague recollections of the evening, most notably our visit to a gay Japanese bath house – and yes it had components of both Japanese and gay bathhouses. So we had a nice soak – but we also got quite an eyeful of the activities going on in one of the “quiet” rooms on another floor. Then there was a room filled with recliners and a thick cloud of cigarette smoke – everybody in their paper robes (provided to all patrons upon entering the establishment), dozing in their chairs while the news played on the big screen TV on the wall (yes, the news, not a porn movie). Joji-san and I continued our debate on the pros and cons of American-style capitalism (no, I’m not kidding) while Chris encouraged me (unsuccessfully) to refrain from purchasing another beer from the vending machine.

So, I’ve just described three of this place’s nine or ten floors.  And decorum (as well as an unwillingness to further embarrass myself) requires me to refrain from providing any further details… Though I will reveal that I spent a good ten minutes at one point freaking out about losing the key to my locker, running around the place with Chris and Joji, panicked that I’d be walking home in my paper robe – only to have the attendant point out that the bracelet holding the key was hanging from my upper arm (hidden by my robe).  How humiliating…

Needless to say, waking the following day (i.e. afternoon) was unpleasant. Chris, for some reason, was in far better shape than I. But I did manage to get myself showered and dressed, though accompanied by the usual hollow promises of never drinking again…  We headed for Ueno Park to see the Tokyo National Museum – had an uninspiring though serviceable tonkatsu (and a beer) nearby than made a quick tour of the museum.  The exhibit we saw was just right – a one-floor circulation that provided some history and examples of a wide-range for Japanese art, antiquities and other objects: pottery, masks, screens, costumes. Very accessible and interesting, especially given my delicate condition.

Alive and kicking - and yummy - at Mon Cher Ton Ton

Back at the hotel afterward for a much-needed lie down. Then off to Mon Cher Ton Ton, a teppanyaki place I’d read about and wanted to try. It was a fancy-ish, expense-account type of place, so a bit of a splurge – though not as much so as someplace like the Park-Hyatt. I was still not fully recovered from the previous night, though a Jack-and-Coke seemed to help considerably.

As for the restaurant, it was good – though perhaps a bit stuffy for us.  Had a couple of very nice appetizers, including probably the freshest scallop I’ve ever had and what were indubitably the freshest prawns I’d ever had. I say “indubitably” because they were very much alive when they hit the grill in front of us. Neither of us quite realized it a first and thought perhaps they were just “sizzling” – but no, the chef had to hold those suckers in place with his spatulas, to ensure they didn’t jump up and run into our labs. And they kept jumping around for a lot longer than I’d’ve thought. So, it was little strange for us, but gotta remember that we’re eating animals right? Oh, and they were delicious, including head and legs, which were served separately, all crispy-crunchy…

Did we really bring this much luggage?

Steaks were very good too, with more marbling than I’d ever seen – though frankly I think I prefer a meatier steak, with a bit more texture to it. And the chef’s skill with knife was impressive (and no, none of the food became airborne and there was not an onion ring volcano). The bill was also impressive…  But Chris and I enjoyed ourselves. Sadly, though, having such a rich meal on our last night in Tokyo was unwise – I didn’t feel that great, so we just went back to our hotel to prepare for our noon departure to Kyoto – not an easy feat considering the ridiculous amount of crap we brought. Have I mentioned that Chris brought seven (yes, seven) pairs of shoes? He did…  He did throw one old pair away – but then bought some new ones the next day…  Sayonara!

Tokyo – Some Random Pictures

So, yeah – I still haven’t updated with any stories of our travels.  We had one especially debauched evening in Tokyo and I never really got back on track with the blog updates.  However, I am still writing and will be posting more tales…  In the meantime, some photos from Tokyo.

Tokyo – Can’t Keep Track of Days Any Longer

Met up with our second Tokyo Free Guide on Saturday morning.  Had a walk through the Imperial Gardens, a really tasty lunch of grilled pork and a stroll through another of Tokyo’s many lovely gardens.  And though we enjoyed our tour, our guide was not as good as Takako-san – he wasn’t very organized, so the trip felt a little aimless.  For instance, while at the Imperial Gardens, he didn’t bother to take us to the Meganebashi Bridge, a lovely spot with a view of the emperor’s residence – we found it on our own when we went back on Monday.

Anyhoo, we said our thank-yous and farewells at around 2PM and headed to Tokyu Hands and Uniqlo to pick up items for our Halloween costumes – which were Krispy Kreme donut makers.  Our friend Skip had sent us Krispy Kreme hats last year and Chris brought them with us to Tokyo.  Since there’s a Krispy Kreme right across from our hotel, he picked up a dozen donuts and an extra box to cut up and make our “uniforms” – and did an amazing job of it.

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They like us... They really like us!

My friend Kenneth met us at our hotel and we took to the streets, donuts firmly in hand.  And we were a huge hit everywhere we went – especially with the people who were lucky enought to get some of our donuts. The original plan was to head over to some big crazy dance club, but we had so much fun in Ni-Chome (home to a bunch of Tokyo’s gay bars) that Chris and I just bar-hopped around there, before stumbling home, happy and donut-less.

We didn’t get an especially early start on Sunday (I know – what a surprise…  I think we made it out of the hotel at around 1PM). Grabbed some rice balls and fried shrimp from the food halls across the way at Takeshimaya which, along with copious amounts of fluids, revived us sufficiently to get on the train to Harajuku.

And what a lovely afternoon it was. Our first stop was the Meiji Jingu Shrine, set inside of a beautiful park right next to the craziness of Harajuku.  The shrine itself is lovely – I think my favorite so far – and being a Sunday it was filled with families who were bringing their young children to the shrine for special blessing ceremonies…  The moms in their best kimonos, the children adorable in their traditional garb. It was a great way to spend our afternoon.

DSC_2293We also ran into our guide Takako-san, who was showing a trio of Angelenos around.  We told them how lucky they were to have her as a guide.  Also ran into a couple of Brits we’d met during our Halloween escapades…  They were even more hungover than we were.  Really fun, though, bumping into people one knows in a city as large as Tokyo.

After the shrine, we headed into the heart of Harajuku. And it was insane – a narrow street mobbed with people, tiny shops crammed into every nook and cranny of every building, other narrower streets branching off in every direction, with more shops and more people.  It was great… Chris and I bought some cute sweatshirts at a jeans shop – despite being about 20 years older than their usual demographic.

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Harajuku - very restful and spa-like.

As we wandered toward Aoyama, the tone starts ramping up – first we hit La Foret, home to a bunch of trendy shops like Top Man; right next store is H&M; then comes Ralph Lauren; Louis Vuitton; Dior; a fancy-shmancy mall; Comme des Garçons; and the famous Prada store.  The  buildings are beautiful – tons of stunning and trendy architecture that, as Chris observed, makes Union Square look like downtown Dogpatch.  And the streets were PACKED with people every step of the way.

We stopped for dinner at Maisen, famed for it’s tonkatsu – and it was delicious.  I had a big slab of breaded, deep-fried pork loin – hard to go wrong there – and it was juicy, crispy and delightfully piggy (literally and figuratively). Wandered back to the train station for a little recharge back in our room before heading to our now-favorite haunts in Ni-Chome.

Met a Japanese fellow, Satoru-san, who used to live in SF and had a nice long chat with him.  I also developed a crush on the super-cute bartender at Dragon Men…  Though it sure made me feel old – he looked like he’d just gotten out of high school (ew, sorry – that sounded kinda pervy…)

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Deep-fried breaded pork - yes, please.

Chris eventually dragged me home from Arty Farty, a little dance bar nearby…  I’d gotten the opportunity to do some voguing, so the night was clearly a success.

Another late-ish start today. We went to re-visit the Imperial Gardens, only to find them closed – but we had a nice walk and enjoyed getting to see the residence.  Then off to Shibuya, for more crowds, craziness and shopping. Going back to Shibuya shortly for dinner at a Western-style place – we’ve been doing pretty well with Japanese food, but after a long week here, we figure a little taste of home will help perk us up – and we’ll need perking up…  Tomorrow’s a national holiday, so it’s a logical Friday night – meaning we have to go out and do another pub crawl…  It’d be rude to stay in…  Sayonara!

Tokyo, Days 3 & 4

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Chicken balls - figuratively, I think.

Dinner at Birdland.  Very good – rather small place  specializing in chicken yakitori…  We were seated at the counter, so we got to watch the busy chefs at the grill.   And nothing goes to waste, as was evidenced by being served heart, gizzard, liver and skin.  I ate everything – though I didn’t manage to finish all five of my chicken hearts – but Chris ate all of his.  I finished all my livers, though, which Chris did not… The chicken breast and meatballs were delicious, as was the special house sake.

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Kampai!

We made another attempt to find Advocates, the gay bar we’d heard about.  We took the subway to Shinjuku Sanchome, which we knew was pretty close – and we had a map.  Rather than try to find it on our own, we hailed a taxi right outside the subway station.  The driver apparently attempted to explain that our destination was essentially across the street, but we didn’t really understand what he was telling us – so he drove us two-and-a-half blocks to the bar… The place was tiny, but convivial – mostly gaijin hanging out.  After a few drinks there, we also stopped at Arty Farty and Dragon, two other nearby gay bars.  All the bars were pretty quiet, but it was nice to hang out with some other gays…  Also, I was plastered – yay!

Slept in a bit, had a Western-style breakfast at our hotel and then walked over to Isetan, a department store nearby. Chris bought some fancy floral underpants for me – they are super-cute and sexy…  Just not when I wear them.  But I love them nonetheless… Then back to the hotel, where met up with Takako-san, our Tokyo Free Guide. She was friendly, kind and knowledgeable – a very nice lady.  She took us first to Asakusa for a visit to the Sensoji Temple, as well as the nearby market – originally the location of the post-WWII black market.  Besides giving us a bit of history as we walked, she was answered our questions, which were far-ranging and various – though many were along the lines of “What’s he saying?” and “What’s that for?” – though we also asked and learned about some of Japan’s history.

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Chris-san and Takako-san

From there we headed to Ueno Park, a huge and lovely green space in the heart of Tokyo. We visited a Toshugo shrine, modeled after a similar shrine in Kyoto, which was very pretty.  At another shrine in the park, there is a memorial to those killed in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – an eternal flame, taken from wreackage of a home after the destruction.  The memorial is quite dignified and very moving…

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Hiroshima & Nagasaki Memorial, surrounded by origami cranes.

Walked around a large pond that was filled with giant lotus plants, before heading to the Tokyo equivalent of a dollar store – retail shops here are endlessly fascinating.  Stopped for a quck bite – I had my first rice ball, which is my new favorite snack…  A slightly warm ball of rice, stuffed with a bit of tuna and mayonaise wrapped with a bit of nori…  Delicious.  Takako-san then took us to Akihabara and bid us farewell outside of the world’s largest electronics store.  Chris and I were weary, so we didn’t explore too much – we just went up to the fifth floor to admire the vast array of electronic toilet seats.  Seriously, I am getting one of those for our apartment back home – a plain old toilet seat feels downright uncivilized after using the automatic ass-washing variety…

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Prayers

Had a little lie-down at the hotel, then went for dinner at Tsunahachi, a tempura place recommended by one of Chris’ clients.  It was delicious – probably our favorite meal so far. Shrimp were amazing; Chris declared his scallops the best he’d ever had (and I have to agree – I like scallops, but I seldom swoon over them…  These were pretty swoon-worthy); and I had some kind of crazy autumn mushroom that was out of this world.

Just after we started eating, my friend Kenneth showed up – he’s a colleague who happened to be visiting Japan at the same time we were.  I’d emailed him the name of our restaurant and was very pleasantly surprised that he tracked us down…  We enjoyed the rest of our dinner together, then walked over to Ni-Chome again, for more drinks at the gay bars Chris and I had finally found the night before.  Had a great time – hung out with a Canadian fellow at Dragon, who is touring Japan with a choral group; met a couple of peculiar Australian gentleman; and watched in horror as a super-drunk Japanese lady did a face plant walking into the john…  I really expected to see her teeth scattered all over the floor, but she was helped up and had nary a scratch.

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Chef prepares tempura.

Home at a semi-reasonable hour, though we still didn’t get going today until about 11:00 for our trip to Disney Sea. Got there by noon and had a really fine time.  The place was rather crowded, but people-watching was good.  Some great rides, too – notably Journey to the Center of the Earth and Storm Rider, both unique to Disney Sea. Chris-san seemed to enjoy himself too – though I know he’s just indulging…  One of the many reasons I love him…

Decided to make it an early night – we have another tour tomorrow starting at 10:00, so we’re hoping to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.  Sayonara!

Tokyo, Days 2 & 3

I always forget what a pain in the ass it is to blog while I’m traveling.  We are generally on the go all day – when we get back to the hotel room, all I want to do is crack a beer and relax.  But since my posts also serve as something of a diary of our adventures, I feel obligated to write…  Plus, I don’t want to disappoint my three readers…  Of course, it doesn’t help that my writing style tends toward the flowery and is pretty much the polar opposite of concise.  Anyhoo, here goes…

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Our guide, Nakamura-san.

Our tour of the Tsukiji Fish Market was amazing.  We met up with our guide, Naoto Nakamura, at just before 4AM around the corner from the market.  Their were five other Americans taking the tour with us – and they were all very nice. Nakamura-san spent a number of years in fish business, so he really knows his way around the market.  If we’d tried to do this on our own, I doubt we’d have seen nearly as much of the market.  One of the highlights was seeing a bunch of the highly-skilled fish sellers preparing the 600-pound tuna they’d purchased. It was incredible to watch. Also saw bits of the tuna auction itself, with the workers wheeling off old-fashioned carts laden with a giant tuna or three after they’d been purchased.

Once the tour finished, Nakamura-san took us to one of the many tiny sushi joints in the market.  I think it was one of the “famous” ones, i.e. where people (Japanese and foreigners) line up for sushi.  Since it was only 6AM, we had a short wait to get a a couple of the ten seats the counter.  We went with the sushi set – the easy way out, since we don’t speak Japanese.  The sushi guys were super-friendly and very good at telling us what to do and eat.  The set was good – though it included uni (sea urchin gonads) which I’d never tried and was frankly a little freaked out by.  But, when in Rome…  It tasted fine – though the texture did make me gag a bit.  But I was able to help Chris out by eating his.  He, by the way, was pretty impressive – he’s rather freaked out by raw fish, but he ate just about everything he was served (though the salmon roe turned out to be pushing the envelope just a bit too far…).  The shrimp and tuna nigiri were all pretty amazing.  I have to confess though, I think I’m just not a huge sushi lover – I like it, but I don’t think it’ll ever make me wax rhapsodic…

DSC_1750From there we headed back to the hotel via subway – easy as pie to navigate, I’m happy to say. Back at the hotel, Chris had a bit of lie-down before we headed back out to explore Shinjuku before our scheduled walking tour of the neighborhood that I’d booked through the Tokyo Tourism Centre.  We showed up at the appointed hour, reservation email in hand – and which I realized instructed a re-confirmation the day before the tour.  And I hadn’t done this – so no tour.  They were very kind and apologetic, but it was my own fault and I felt like an idiot – it was very disappointing…  But we did head up to the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – it’s on the 45th floor, it’s free and offers and expansive view of the city.

More wandering through Shinjuku…  We decided to check out Tokyu Hands, which is sort of a Japanese version of Target – though that description really doesn’t do it justice.  We thought we’d just take a quick peak, but wound up spending three hours there as we explored all eight floors.  Chris bought a body slimmer and a tongue scraper; I bought some special hanging clothespins (to hang my Bluettes at home) and a wallet; and I think we physically handled about 60% of the store’s inventory.

After that we spent an hour in the food halls in the basement of Takeshimaya department store.  And yes, we saw $150 cantaloupes and grapes the size of ping-pong balls.

Then back to the hotel before heading to dinner at Yuian, a place I’d read about on Chowhound.  It is on the 52nd floor of the Sumitomo Building, so the view was spectacular.  Regrettably, our waiter was incompetent.  He was very nice, but I think it may have been his first day.  He didn’t take our order until we’d been there 45 minutes.  The food, once it did arrive was just OK.   Both of us wound up with “do-it-yourself’ dishes – mini-hibachi with steak for Chris, shabu-shabu for me.  The whole experience was really disappointing…

Next, off to Ni-Chome, Tokyo’s little gay section.  Though we never found it.  Got completely lost, I got really crabby, we finally gave up and went back to the hotel, and hit the hay, each of us really pissed off at the other…  Fun!

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Yes, I know - we felt guilty for eating this too...

Wednesday morning we ironed out our differences and got another early start.  Chris finally heeded the siren call of Krispy Kreme, followed by a chai latte at Starbuck’s.  We kind of hated ourselves for going to either establishment – but considering both of them were jammed with Japanese, I think we were actually being pretty authentical.

First stop, Ginza.  Saw a couple of the luxe retailers with their schmancy buildings (Dior was our favorite).  Of course, it also didn’t take us long to say to ourselves, “Oh my god, we can’t afford this shit…” So we headed back to the subway (though Chris did buy a pair of sneakers at a nice, though compared to Mikimoto and Gucci, decidedly lower-end shop) for Roppongi.

Apparently, Roppongi isn’t what it used to be – a somewhat seedy spot that catered to tourists with overpriced lousy restaurants and hostess bars.  We went to Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Marketplace – two gigantic developments encompassing malls, offices and residences.  And it was as high end (if not more so) than Ginza.  We had tacos for lunch (they were delicious) and then rode up to the top of the Mori Building – home to an observation deck and a small but lovely museum featuring contemporary art.

And now we’re back at the hotel, just about done with our bottle of wine.  Back to Ginza tonight for dinner at Birdland, which specializes in chicken yakitori – and I think might serve chicken sashimi (no, I’m not lying).  And adventurous as I try to be, I will not be trying it…  Sayonara!

Tokyo Bound

And we’re off!  With nary a hiccup to boot.  Chris and I both packed (well, over-packed) and still had plenty of room left in our suitcases (OK, not really “plenty” – but considering we’re two big queens who hate to wear an outfit more than once, we did pretty well). No line at the check-in counter; had a decent breakfast at the airport food court; then headed to the Red Carpet Club…

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ANA must be embarassed to send their business class passengers to this United dump...

What a dump! Crowded; styrofoam (!) cups for water and coffee; a couple of stale cookies to snack on; and half-empty cups and crumpled up napkins all over the place.  And the best was when some kid knocked over a glass (yes, a real one – apparently her father was taking advantage of his two free drinks from the bar – as were we) and broke it.  They then took off for their flight…  The broken glass littering the floor and the deadly remaining shard on the table were still there when we left…

At any rate, what a relief to get on board our plane! Business class on ANA is heavenly (I know, how surprising…). Seriously, I’ve been looking at photos and reading reviews, none of which do the real thing justice. It’s spotless, tasteful, roomy, thoughtfully designed, airy…  I could go on and on. And the flight attendants are all lovely – professional, helpful and attractive.  Seriously, they are all very nice looking (as are the uniforms – the best part being the silk scarf…  which each stewardess has knotted in a different and elaborate bow).  Does that make me a chauvinist and/or racist?  Yeah, probably, but I’m enjoying the flight nonetheless…

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"Champers alright for you Pats?"

Mere minutes after we left the ground, the champagne was served – in real glasses.  Then a snack while we looked over our menus.  I was tempted to try the Japanese menu – though I’d heard it wasn’t as good coming from USA as from Nihon. So I chickened out and went with the “International” menu – it was pretty tasty.  Started off with a salad, pork pate and a stuffed artichoke – really quite tasty.  Next a filet of beef – it was “meh” though certainly not bad for airline food.  Dessert was crazy – “ANA’s special chestnut parfait.” It was two cream puffs on top of whipped cream and a scoop of ice cream with a berry coulis and what we’re pretty sure was Special K cereal at the bottom.  Odd, but we ate every bit…  Oh, and a green tea…  and a whiskey…

Anyhoo, seven hours to go.  Chris is “resting his eyes,” i.e. he’s passed out, though I think we’re going to watch “The Hangover” (appropriately) together when he comes to…  In the meantime, I’m about to start crossword puzzle number 2 of the trip.

So, the trip across the Pacific was delightful.  The 11 hours flew by (no pun intended!).  We arrived on-time at Narita in a pouring rain – hooray! But all went smoothly through customs and immigration.  However, I made a fateful last minute decision to take the “Limousine Bus” (it’s just a bus, despite the fancy sounding limousine part) rather than the Narita Express train – my thought being that having to schlep three blocks in the rain with our bags was not worth the extra 25 minutes (100 minutes by bus vs. 75 minutes by train) it takes to go by bus, which drops us at front door of hotel.

Needless to say, after spending over three hours on that bus (due to horrible traffic in Tokyo), I was in a foul mood – especially considering it had stopped raining long ago, thus negating the entire reason for choosing the bus…  Once we did get to the hotel, check in went relatively smoothly (thought of course there was a huge line of people who’d been on the bus with us). Couldn’t manage to get internet access in the room, which prompted a meltdown on my part – we still needed to confirm our tour of the Tsukiji Fish Market with our guide.  And the tour started at 4AM and it was already after 9PM…  Grrr…  Anyway, I used wi-fi in the lobby and left in-room access to deal with later…

So, we did get up and had a fabulous tour of the fish market…  I’ll post more about that later.  But we’re off for a tour of our neighborhood this afternoon, just as soon as Chris-san is done resting his eyes…  Sayonara!

Our last bite of the Big Apple.

Eyes bloodshot, face smeared with mustard.  Glamorous!

Eyes bloodshot, face smeared with mustard. Glamorous!

Sunday was another grand day.  Made it down to Katz’s and their pastrami sandwich lived up to its reputation.  It was delicious and had substantial restorative powers… which were much needed after the previous evening’s bar crawl.

Then a quick tour of MoMA before heading back to Broadway for our fifth and final show of our gay-stravaganza Weekend, Billy Elliot.  And it was great…  The music was fine if ultimately forgettable, but the dancing was marvelous, the cast amazing and the story fascinating.  And, for the first time, we didn’t have to shush anybody!

I should be so good at my job...

I should be so good at my job...

After the show, back to our digs in Murray Hill for a lie-down and a shower before meeting Sue and Mark (Chris’ friends from D.C. who happened to be in town) for dinner at Bread Bar at Tabla, a sort of nouveau/locally-sourced Indian place.  Really great cocktails (I had a super-refreshing and delicious watermelon mojito), followed by a very mediocre dinner (oh well).  Then back up to Hellsea for a last round of drinks at Therapy with Mikey and Justin.  Of course, Chris and I continued on to several other boites before the night ended. At one place, we met a charming young Frenchman with a bandage on his arm.  Thinking perhaps he’d had a run-in with side-view mirror similar to my own, we inquired as to his injury.  His story beat mine: he’d been stabbed in Guatemala.  Adventurous!

I'm in love with a wonderful guy...

I'm in love with a wonderful guy...

Monday morning we got a late start, had breakfast and planned to ascend the Empire State Building…  But the line was long and our time was short, so we just walked around for a bit and had a glass of wine before heading to JFK.

All went well with our flight (incredibly, Chris and I had an empty seat between us again – and the plane was packed…).  The one little hiccup in our flight was the woman two rows ahead of us who apparently had a mild case of the crazies – at one point she was yelling to no one in particular that one day all secrets would be revealed and everyone would know the truth.  A bit later, she started shrieking at the top of her lungs.  It was super!  Don’t know what they did, but the crew managed to keep her relatively calm for the remainder of the flight and John Law was waiting at the gate at SFO to escort her off.

We got back to our apartment via taxi and were panhandled immediately upon arriving at our front door.  Welcome home…

The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down…

I didn’t schelp my camera around yesterday, so here’s a quck rundown:

Breakfast donwstairs at the Barking Dog – it was adequate.

Park Ave was closed to auto traffic until 2PM – bikes and peds only, so we walked up and around Grand Central, took a left at the Seagram’s Building and went to the matinee of Next to Normal.  It knocked our socks off – can’t recommend this show highly enough.

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The kitchen in our hotel room... Actually, part of the installation we saw downtown.

Quick subway ride down to SoHo to the Black Acid Cooperative, where they have a full-building art installation of a meth lab.  It was like a home-made haunted house for grown-ups.

A late lunch in the garden  at Barolo (an amazing house-made burrata con prosciutto followed by an unremarkable insalata Cesare and a just OK tortino de seppie).

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"What recession?" Hordes of theater-goers thronging the Palace Theater to see West Side Story.

Then a quick shower at home before West Side Story – which was, in a word, disappointing.  Still very enjoyable – dancing was fantastic, music as lovely as ever and Maria had a beautiful voice.  But Tony was miscast in my view – his singing was too pop; he tended to sound nasal and sang with his head voice rather than his chest.  In other words, he’s no Larry Kert.

And there was a horrible German woman in front of us, who was continually translating what was happening onstage to her decidedly unsightly child. Chris and I both asked her separately to stop talking – which minimized, but did not stop, the offending chatter.  Plus, she gave me a dirty look – like I was being unreasonable.  The usher was called during intermission…   That seemed to do the trick.  I was tempted to announce loudly, “Wasn’t it bad enough that you exterminated six million of my relatives?  Now you have to ruin West Side Story?”  But that seemed out a bit out of proportion to the situation.

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Chris racks 'em up.

Then a whirlwind of gay bars with a liberal smattering of hot bartenders, followed by a good night’s sleep.  Up and at ‘em today – going to Katz’s Deli and Billy Elliott…

The city so nice, they named it twice…

The view from our hotel room.  Le sigh...

The view from our hotel room. Le sigh...

Why have I stayed away so long?  New York is in many ways unrecognizable from when I was last here more than ten years ago…  Yet it is also the same.  I’d really sort of forgotten what its like to be in a real city.  I still love SF – but NYC is the shit…  And SF could take a lesson on how a real city gets it done – the streets are clean, transit is fast and efficient, there are tons of bike lanes separated from auto traffic, streets are being closed to cars and opened to pedestrians.  Despite the giant buildings and roaring traffic, the city feels amazingly people-focused…  It’s great.

Chris at the High Line

Chris at the High Line

At any rate, we slept in today, rising at the crack of 10:00 after going to a play last night, having drinks with our old friends Mikey and Justin and then hitting a few gay bars.  Big fun (especially getting to break it down on the dance floor to Madge’s “Celebration”).  After breakfast, we took a stroll down the High Line, the new park on top of the old elevated train tracks on the west side of the Meatpacking District.  It’s a fantastic space and being 30 feet above Manhattan gives one a previously unseen view of the town.

Nice ice cream lady.   But ice cream just OK...

Nice ice cream lady. But ice cream just OK...

Saw the  Van Leewun Ice Cream truck once we finished our walk down the High Line.  I’d read about it and it sounded great – essentially a Bi-Rite Creamery on wheels.   But the ice cream was just OK – my strawberry was decidedly unfruity.  But the lady who scooped for us was very nice and we chatted about SF and ice cream.

Ambled through MePa with a detour past my old digs on West 15th – the palladian staircase is no more, but the building itself looks a lot nicer than back in my day.  Jumped on the subway and headed to the Met for a quick run-through: sculpture garden and Temple of Dendur were as delightful as always.  Then a long walk down Mad Ave (we tried Fifth but it was so gross and mobbed, we hightailed it back to Madison after a block).  Now, wine and naps at our hotel before we head out to see “South Pacific” tonight.  So, set your watches to about 8:30 EDT – that should be about the time Emile starts singing “Some Enchanted Evening” and I’ll be weeping like a baby…  Well, actually, I’m already getting teary-eyed thinking about it…

Yes, I’m blogging from 35,000 feet.

Updating my blog while flying – exciting!  But also – not so much!  Because flying is really boring…  I am happy to report, however, that Chris and I managed to get what appears to be the only free middle seat on the plane – God, there really is nothing better than seeing that airplane door close while there’s an empty seat next to you…

The crew on the plane is 100% sausage-fest.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Just not sure I’ve ever been on a flight with an all-male crew – and only one of the three cabin attendants appears to be a queen.  The times they are a-changin’…

We also departed on time – despite some confusion with seating arrangements for some other passengers.  Despite having boarding passes that indicated they were seated in 19D and 21F, they chose to sit in seats 7E and 7F.  The passengers assigned to 7E and 7F were a bit puzzled, but it got sorted out quickly enough.  But really?  Did the interlopers really think no one would notice?  Or were they just obtuse?  Eh, whatever – I’m still savoring the empty seat to my right.

Anyhoo, on-time departure means we should arrive at JFK at 3PM, giving us plenty of time to see a play tonight.  We’re hoping to get tickets to Mary Stuart – Queen Elizabeth vs. Mary, Queen of Scots – a story I never tire of, despite knowing how it turns out (spoiler alert: not well for Mary).  That’ll make it five shows in four days…  A true gay-stravaganza weekend.

Hate to post without a picture or video to spice things up – but the onboard photo I took of myself using my laptop is not flattering.  Kind of like one of those grainy shots of Bigfoot, only instead of Bigfoot it’s Rosa Klebb… And yes, I am wearing my poison-tipped shoe.

So, instead: funny dogs!

1984

Reagonomics, AIDS, K cars, extra-extra strength Tylenol, shoulder pads, Vice President Dan “Potatoe” Quayle…  Sure, the ’80s had many, many low points…  But there remain some happier legacies of those days of yore…

Chillaxin’ in Palm Springs

I had every intent of blogging over the week we spent in Palm Springs – but I forgot my media card reader.  And, really, what’s the point of blogging about a vacation if I don’t have photographic evidence to reinforce how vastly superior vacation life is to everyday life?  Of course, I was also quite busy taking naps, lying by the pool, perfecting my piña colada and margarita making techniques, preparing delicious dinners and dancing my ass off at Toucan’s Tiki Lounge.  In other words, I simply didn’t have time to blog…

Yes, in fact, this is the life...

Yes, in fact, this is the life...

Initially, I thought I’d just provide a chronological recap of our wonderful week.  But this would be something of a waste of time, as our days had a certain delightful quality of repetitiveness.  To wit:

  • 7:30 – Wake-up.
  • 7:31 – Realize I’m on vacation; go back to sleep.
  • 10:30 – Wake up again; actually get out of bed.
  • 11-ish – Breakfast…  Either make bagels and lox or head to Cheeky’s.
  • Noon – Lay out by pool
  • 12:01- Observe that it is now afternoon and therefore acceptable to start drinking beer and/or wine.
  • 2:00 – Have a lie-down and/or rest my eyes.
  • 3:00 – Observe that it is now mid-afternoon and therefore acceptable to start drinking cocktails. Continue drinking and/or napping until time for dinner.
  • 7:30 – Head out to King’s Highway or El Mirasol for dinner.  Alternatively, stay home and barbecue something; discover I have rather a talent for grilling.
  • 10:00 – Arrive at Toucan’s; dance until sweaty; drink beer; repeat.
  • Midnight – Arrive home.  Optional: get into a fight with Chris over whether or not to listen the Pet Shop Boys (not recommended).

Should you find yourself in Palm Springs, I heartily endorse the schedule outlined above.

"Has anyone seen my Virginia Slims?"

"Has anyone seen my Virginia Slims?"

As to some of the specifics of our stay, here’s some of the 4-1-1…

The House on George Drive

The view from the pool.

The view from the pool.

In a word, delightful.  A charming Alexander house, recently re-done – a wonderfully open main space with living and dining areas and a well-designed kitchen; three comfy bedrooms; two very nice bathrooms; and a lovely outdoor space with pool, lounges, firepit and dining area.  Seriously, it was fabulous – quiet, peaceful, relaxing.  This even despite the fact that we were pretty sure the ramshackle place next door – the one with the overgrown yard, a pool empty of water but containing a rusting mountain bike and some castoff gym equipment, a carport brimming with old sofas and a revolving assortment of brand new Lexuses parked in the driveway – was a meth lab (or at the very least a grow house).

Oh, and our place was a mere ten-minute stumble walk to Toucan’s and Dink’s.  Huge bonus points, obv…

Cheeky’s

We love everything about the place.  Well, except for the name.  And the sometimes meandering service.  But the food is fantastic.  I had chilaquiles one morning – very authentic, in that they did not contain eggs, just tortilla strips, chorizo and queso fresco in a homemade salsa.  It was both delicious and had amazing curative powers – my low-grade hangover was banished before I’d even finished my meal.  Another day I had a cheese-and-corn tamale topped with scrambled egg and napped with a house tomatillo salsa – simple and sublime.  This was the same day Chris declared his asparagus, corn and cheese scramble to be the best scramble he’d ever had – and I have to agree.  Too often scrambles are overwhelmed by their ingredients (especially gloppy cheese) – this one was perfectly balanced, with the eggs maintaining their proper place center-stage, the rest of the ingredients acting as the harmonious supporting cast.

We also shared the lemon-buttermilk waffles served with lemon curd and blackberries – and yes they were as delicious as they sound. Regrettably, I took no pictures – too focused on the amazing food, I guess…

King’s Highway

Chilaquiles at King's Highway

Chilaquiles at King's Highway

The Ace Hotel just opened in a former Howard Johnson’s down on East Palm Canyon.  Along with a hip re-do of the hotel, the old Denny’s coffee shop adjacent got the same treatment, offering simple locally sourced food at reasonable prices – and served by a team of super-dreamy waiters.

Had breakfast and a couple of dinners here.  Their version of chilaquiles, while very different than Cheeky’s, was also superb: eggs, tortillas, chorizo, crema, a zippy salsa.  At dinner, both the vegetarian black bean chili and the fish tacos were excellent.  Another night I had a steak sandwich, which I remember as being quite good – though I’d spent a bit of time in the Amigo Room, sampling margaritas, so my memory is not crystal clear…

Toucan’s Tiki Lounge

I suppose it almost sounds like it’s the only reason we go to Palm Springs.  And it might be close to that.  Chris and I have the most amazing time out on the dance floor – as does everyone around us!  For example, on our last night there, we had a total robot-off – with Chris winning per usual, since his skills doing the robot are unmatched and his lazy eye somehow adds to his authentic robotic-ness.

But seriously, this place has everything – drag shows (including a performance by Tammie Brown, our favorite contestant from RuPaul’s Drag Race…  and whom Chris stalked and chased into her dressing room introduced himself to and got some fab pix with…), piano bar nights (where my request for “Do, A Deer” was honored – both literally and figuratively), a tiny dance floor playing all our favorites (well, except for Pet Shop Boys – about which Chris got into something of argument with DJ Galaxy – again, not recommended to get into it with Chris when it comes to PSB…) and super-friendly staff and clientele.  Just fun, fun, fun…

Dink’s

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The trademark red robe at Dink's - Kwell not included!

If Toucan’s is “fun, fun, fun”, then Dink’s is “weird, weird, weird – but still pretty fun”.  It’s kind of impossible to describe…  It’s a restaurant/bar/lounge with an outdoor lounge, an indoor lounge, a half-in/half-out lounge, VIP booths with bottle service (that no one does, meaning plebs like use can just sit in them drinking our Budweisers), live cabaret-style performances and a friendly staff.  And it caters primarily to old queens, retirees, cougars, middle-aged queens, groups of drunken twenty-something girls, young queens and yentas.  Oh, and the Dink’s signature? Providing patrons with hideous red fleece robes to wear on the patio – you know, to ward off the chill…  And the scabies are complimentary (I kid! I kid!).

Indian Canyons

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Coolin' off our tootsies at an oasis...

A mere ten minute drive from downtown Palm Springs is the open desert, stark, mountainous, yet also dotted with some of the largest palm oases in North America.  We quite wisely chose to arrive at around noon on a day when the temperature topped out at about 103°.  Luckily for us, quite a few of the trails are easily walked and the palms of the oasis provided shelter and shade, as did the cooling water we found in a blessedly chilled rock cave and in a babbling stream further along.  It was a very nice visit – though getting an early start is probably a good idea.

Other Stuff

Always worthwhile to cruise the streets of the older sections of Palm Springs.  There are tons of beautifully restored and maintained Alexanders; the not-to-be-missed Kaufman House; the wonderful (though largely hidden) Dinah Shore Residence designed by Don Wexler; the charmingly quirky Del Marcos Hotel.

Also not to be missed is radio station KWXY at 98.5.  They have been broadcasting with the “beautiful music” format since the station was founded in 1964.  And it’s the perfect soundtrack for Palm Springs: 101 Strings, Percy Faith, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Mantovani…  My choice is to listen to it 24/7 – though Chris likes to play his Pet Shop Boys every now and again (best just to let him; see above)

At any rate, go to Palm Springs.  It’s hot – but it’s a dry heat…  Still not sure what that means, but I said it at least half a dozen times every day.  And as I sit here wearing a sweatshirt over a sweater over a shirt in my chilly apartment, I long to hear the dulcet tones of the KWXY announcer telling me that  “the current temperarture is 103° with a relative humidity of 9%”…

Lots more pix after the jump

Palm Springs Weekend

We flew into Los Angeles on Christmas morning, on time and uneventfully – the best kind of flight.  Picked up our Subaru Forester at  Budget (apparently, they thought we were lesbians) and hit the road for Palm Springs.  I did notice that whatever product had been used to clean the car seemed very perfume-y – but figured it’d wear off soon enough…  More on that later…

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The view from our patio...

We arrived at the Horizon Hotel at around one o’clock.  The hotel is pretty amazing – a lovingly restored William Cody motel.  The place is a jewel – a mid-century oasis, wonderfully private and tranquil despite being just off a busy street.   Besides the half-dozen or so buildings, with a guest room on each of its three spokes, the grounds are simple, with soothing landscaping – manicured lawns, cacti and other succulents, all surrounding the central pool and Jacuzzi, with snow-capped mountains surrounding us.  Really quite lovely.

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The view from our indoor-outdoor shower... Le sigh.

We ran a few errands and I couldn’t figure out why my clothes reeked of women’s perfume.  I hadn’t been in contact with any French whores, so it was quite mysterious – until we discovered that apparently the previous renter of our car had in fact been a French whore and had been repeatedly dousing herself with perfume while driving, thus transforming the seatbelt into a super-sized perfume strip.  It was foul – the stench actually permeated three layers of my clothing right through to my body.  Ugh…  We tried to trade the car for an unbefouled one at the Palm Springs airport, but they were out of cars.  So our solution was to unwind the entire seat belt whenever we parked and leave it hanging out the door in an only semi-successful attempt to air it out and de-stink it.  Oh well…

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The bar at Citron.

At any rate,  we were still a bit hung from the previous evening’s holiday festivities chez Cone/Glick, so after our errands we rested our eyes for a few hours …  Then, off to the Viceroy for a pre-dinner drink at Citron.  I must say, I was expecting the Viceroy to be rather lavish.  In fact, it’s a smallish hotel just a couple of blocks off the main drag, Palm Canyon Boulevard.  Both the bar and the restaurant were small, though nice looking.

Feeling in the mood for something different, I ordered an Americano from the bartender – while sitting at the bar (yes, this is important to note).  Chris’s Manhattan showed up quickly enough, but there was some sort of problem with my Americano – I figured maybe they didn’t know how to make it or had to go get Campari out of the liquor closet…  Well, I was kind of right – after a few minutes, the bartender (or should I say “bartender”?) showed up and served me a cup of coffee with a flourish.  “Your Americano, sir.”  At any rate, I explained that an Americano is, in fact, also a cocktail.  So, off he went to get his bartender’s recipe  book and I soon had my drink…

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Smoked Salmon with Beets

Next, dinner at Johannes, a place I’d read good things about.  It was OK – though quite expensive.  My first course was very good smoked salmon served with beets – a nice combination.  For dinner, I chose trout – which was a bit trout-y for my taste.  Not fishy per se, just sort of “meh”.  Chris had a rather tasty (though dry ) chicken with a savory fruit sauce and lukewarm stuffing.  Desserts were bread pudding and a strudel – not horrible, not especially memorable.

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Really?

A peculiar and unwelcome addition to the menu was the 20% gratuity added to all checks.  Why not just charge $80 prix fixe rather than $65?  Tacky…

After dinner, we stopped in at Hunters, a local gay bar, for a couple of drinks.  It was fun – and we felt cute and thin in comparison to much of the rest of the clientele.  Then home to the Horizon, where we took a late night dip in the hot tub while we sipped wine and gazed up at the stars…  Merry Christmas indeed…

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The Parker - We stopped in for a drink... Very glamorous.

Slept in a bit on Friday, then took off for Cabazon, home to a reputedly amazing assortment of designer outlets.  And it was pretty amazing – especially how hideously crowded it was.  We made it about halfway through before my hangover and continental breakfast conspired to give me a major case of the vapors.  Since I didn’t have smelling salts, we booked it out of there.  It was actually too bad – I think with more time and smaller crowds, we’d have enjoyed our trip there…  But the day after Christmas is apparently not the ideal choice of days to visit, unless one is very dedicated (and sufficiently fueled).

Back to Palm Springs for a great lunch at Sherman’s, a well-known Jewish deli – which thankfully is not kosher, meaning Reuben sandwich, here I come!  Juicy, lean and spicy pastrami on good rye bread – really tasty.  Also had a bowl of cabbage soup, which worked wonders on my vapors (despite not being as good as Grandma Lillian’s…).  Left here feeling reinvigorated, though stuffed.

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Los Chicos al Mirasol

Returned to the Horizon to rest our eyes for a bit.  Then off to visit Matthew and Ray, friends from SF who have a charming condo done up all fabulously.  Had a couple of cocktails, then headed off to El Mirasol, which everyone seems to agree has the best Mexican food in town – and who am I to argue?  The place was crawling with queens (all very nice) and we had to wait about an hour for a table – which was fine, since they serve very strong margaritas – actually, they’re more like giant goblets of tequila with a squeeze of lime in them.  At any rate, what I do remember of my order of carnitas is all quite favorable.

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Chris breakin' it down at Toucan's...

Next stop was going to be Dink’s – but the place was cougar central on this particular evening, so we hightailed it out of there for Toucan’s Tiki Lounge across the street.  Now, there didn’t really seem to be anything special about the place – a medium-ish lounge up front with a go-go boy dancing; a decent sized bar; a smallish dance floor, with a DJ spinning all our favorites from Energy 92.7; and an OK looking crowd.  But for whatever reason, by the end of the evening, Chris and I had declared Toucan’s our top gay bar on earth.  We spent a good three hours dancing – and Chris never wants to dance, especially with me… Anyway, we poured ourselves into a taxi at about 1:00, both of us sweaty and exhausted and grinning like buffoons – seriously, we had such fun…

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Tidying up the morning after... Apparently, we didn't finish all of our wine...

Up the next morning with only the mildest of hangovers – which were quickly cured at Elmer’s, where I had waffles (yum!) and Chris had a steak.  We were in tip-top shape by 2PM, when we met up with Robert Imber for a tour focused on modern architecture in Palm Springs.

And what a tour it was.  Spent a bit of time at 121 South Palm Canyon, the shamefully ill-maintained mid-century office and retail space managed by Wessman Development – apparently the bane of preservationists all over the desert.  From there, we (there were another two people on the tour with us) piled into Robert’s mini-van and headed into the Las Palmas neighborhood.  Saw tons of houses built by the Alexander Construction Company (mostly designed by Palmer & Krisel, though some by Don Wexler).  Saw Dinah Shore’s fabulous former residence; the Kaufmann house by Richard Neutra; Liberace’s house, right across the street from a charming Catholic church.  I could go on and on – the houses were simply amazing and I can’t wait to go back and explore some more.

And Mr. Imber was a great guide.  Passionate, opinionated, knowledgeable and great fun – and he seems to know everyone in town.  I heartily endorse this tour.

A quick trip home to change into evening wear, then off for a drink at the new Riviera Resort – it was a pretty fabulous looking place, both indoors and the super deluxe pool area.  The service was unrefined and we got the impression that it was likely to have a HDBQ (high douche bag quotient) once the place got hopping – like it would attract the same crowd who’d think it was glamorous to get a cabana at Rehab in Vegas.

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Meatballs in Sweet-and-Sour Sauce with Belgian Fries

Dinner at Zin American Bistro.  It was very good – I’m still craving the sweet-and-sour meatballs with Belgian fries.  And Chris had a giant and juicy pork chop.

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Mon dieu!

We met up with Matthew and Ray again, this time at Blame It On Midnight, a bar/lounge/restaurant – apparently with a non-French speaking PR person (see photo).  Chris and I debated back and forth about returning to Toucan’s – because, really, what were the chances that it could be as fun as the previous evening?  And would a less-fun return visit tarnish our memories?  Eh, screw that – it was early and we wanted to go out.  And it was just as fun as the night before – maybe even more so, since the very attractive tattooed guy that Chris and I had been ogling stopped us to tell us that we were the “hottest couple in the whole place.”  Granted, our competition was slim, but flattery will get you everywhere!  We spent another three hours dancing, too – seriously, we love this place.

Having a gay old time!

Having a gay old time!

Sunday morning we had brunch at Norma’s at the Parker.  It was very good – I had huevos rancheros, Chris had a breakfast burrito, seated out in the groovy patio surrounded by lush gardens.  Quite the glam scene…  Then, we loaded up the perfume-mobile and headed to LAX for another blissfully uneventful flight home – where we immediately started planning our next trip to Palm Springs…

The Last Days of Rome…

Note: Had some difficulties posting photos while in Rome, but I continued to blog offline. This is the last entry that I wrote while in Rome.

So, after lunch near Villa Adriana, we caught the bus back to Rome. It was five billion degrees inside (literally!) and stop-and-go traffic for the entire 90 minutes we were aboard (the guidebooks say the trip takes 35-60 minutes…). As soon as a subway stop was visible as we arrived on the outskirts of Rome, we joined the exodus of passengers running for the doors, eager to just be on a mode of transportation that was moving, even if it was the very last stop on Linea B…

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Giovanni Fassi - and little cutie scooper...

Had a quick stop at Palazzo del Freddo Giovanni Fassi, just around the corner from our apartment.  Very good cassatina (vanilla with candied fruit) and crema for me, Chris stuck with pistachio and chocolate. Kind of a zoo ordering…  One pays first at the register, then battles to the front of the hordes all yelling for the attention of the beleaguered scoopers…  Sadly enough, I just missed my chance to be waited on by the really cute scooper and was instead stuck with the crabby eye-rolling one (apparently, my lame Italian was not endearing me to him…)

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Chris enjoying some wine at La Mucca Bischera

Back to apartment to rest up a bit before dinner – a place called Uno e Bino, just on the opposite side of the railroad tracks near our apartment. We located the place quite easily – and we were frankly not in the least bit surprised when we found it locked up tight as a drum, apparently no longer in business. Sigh…

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Pizza bianca - simple and simply fantastico...

There was a very busy place next door, called La Mucca Bischera – so that was Plan B. And what a Plan B it turned out to be. An excellent pizza bianca for me and a pizza margherita with prosciutto for Chris. Some of the best pizzas of the trip, with super-thin and crispy crust – really delicious. I also had a mixed grilled meat skewer – beef, sausage and chicken – that was very tasty, meaty and fresh off the grill. Oh, and as if the fine meal wasn’t enough, every waiter working in the place was as cute as can be… A lovely evening.

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Hahaha! Chris got stuck with the blue umbrella - what a homo!

Friday we slept in a bit, then took the metro to Testaccio for the market and food shops. The metro stop is outdoors and I was about to remark to Chris that I thought I felt a few sprinkles – just as I heard him say, “Oh my god – it’s pouring”. And it was. Good thing we’d packed those umbrellas – and left them at our apartment! But, as in every big city, umbrella peddlers magically appeared outside the subway stop and we were on our way.

The market in the Piazza Testaccio was interesting to see, though since we were nearing the end of our trip, I wasn’t really looking to stock up on meat and produce. Of course, we did have a couple of very yummy cookies from one of the stands.

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Meat anyone?

Stopped into a couple of the local food shops, like Volpetti (a tiny shop, brimming with a huge variety of cured meats, cheeses, pastries, bread and other great food – though for some reason I’d expected something quite a bit larger, like Balducci’s in NYC…) and Divinare (where we picked up some treats to bring home…).

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Salumi e bruschetta

We tried to get a pizza for lunch in Testaccio at Remo, but they are only open for dinner.  So, we headed back to the historic center and came across Capranica.  Had a fantastic plate of salumi to start.  And the pizza I had here was even better than the night before.  Chris had an excellent risotto con carciofi, also delicious.

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Yes, this pizza is perfect...

Spent the rest of the day finishing up things on our “to-do” list, including a visit to Confitteria Moriondo & Gariglio (for chocolates), Ai Monasteri (for various items made by monks – though most of them liquids, such as wine, grappa and various elixirs to bring about a range of outcomes such as love or happiness…  Of course, we couldn’t buy any of this, since there’s no way to easily transport liquids back to the U.S. anymore – but then I suppose if we start allowing liquids on airplanes, the terrorists will have won… We settled for a package of hard candies, along with the bitter memory that we couldn’t bring home any “Devil’s Claw Concentrated Liqueur) and Giolitti (I think this was my favorite gelateria of the trip – they are famous for their fruit-flavored gelati and the blueberry that Chris had was intense and absolutely divine…).

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Jesus, lady, make up your mind - we need our gelato NOW!

Afterward, back to the Pantheon for a daytime visit.  The sunlight streaming through the hole in the roof made for an especially lovely play of light and dark…

Wow...

Wow...

We also wandered along Via Cestari, a small street near the Pantheon that houses shops selling vestments and habits for priests, nuns, bishops and cardinals; and other shops selling chalices, monstrances, censers and life-size statues of Jesus, Mary and all the rest of the saints.  Much of what we saw was quite beautiful and all of it fascinating…

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I'll bet those vestments cover up a multitude of flaws - like the pear shape I appear to have acquired in this photo...

Just up the street was the Hotel Minerve, which was thoughtful enough to open up a rooftop lounge and restaurant, where we retired for a drink after our long day.  The sun was just setting as we looked out on the Pantheon…  making our €16.00 cocktails worth every penny…

Dinner that night was back across the railroad tracks.  The San Lorenzo neighborhood over there is quite lively – sort of like the Valencia St. of Rome, with tons of restaurants, bars and clubs with live music, the streets filled with 20-somethings out for the night.

March of the Saints

We ate at Osteria il Pulcino Ballerino, which we’d seen the night before.  Dinner was pasta, followed by grilled meat, with us seated out along the sidewalk on another warm evening in Rome.

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The Temple of Minerva Medica - directly across from our apartment.

We walked home, happy and contented – until, just as  I stopped to take picture of the ruins of the temple across from our apartment, Chris realized he’d left his man-purse sitting on the ground under our table back at the restaurant.  We ran back (well, we ran part of the way – after ten days of eating, drinking and breathing in fumes from the ubiquitous scooters of Rome, we were not exactly in tip-top running condition…) to find that our waiter had found the bag and kept it safe for us.  Phew!  Another disaster averted…

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Chris enjoying lunch at GiNa

Saturday, our last day in Rome.  A quick trip to the Villa Medici, lunch at a charming restaurant called GiNa, just next to the Spanish Steps.  Had a marvelous salad with lettuce, stracchino, green beans and the most delicious tomatoes, then a fresh and vibrant rigatoni con pesto for Chris and a tasty and comforting prosciutto cotto and brie sandwich for me.

After lunch, we planned to head back to Giolitti for gelato, but our waitress and the manager of GiNa both insisted that we try Ciampini, a short walk from the Spanish Steps.  Quite a good recommendation – Chris declared it his favorite, though I still gave the edge to Giolitti – though the stracciatella at Ciampini was a champion, the vanilla ice cream vibrant and the chocolate flakes darkly luscious.  And a perfect foil for the fresh banana  I had with it…

Back home to pack in preparation for our 4:45 AM trip to the airport (a really delightful way to end a trip…), which went smoothly.  Then, another roof top bar for a drink, this time at the Hotel Gladiatori, just about 200 yards from the Collosseo – a pretty spectacular view for our last evening in Rome.

Not a bad view...

Not a bad view...

For dinner, we returned to La Piazzetta – with all of the trial and tribulations we’d experienced in searching for a restaurant, seemed like our last night was a good time to go back to someplace we’d loved the first time…

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Antipasti al carrello at La Piazzetta.

We had a our same delightful waitress, Sandra, a good sign…  I ordered the same antipasto al carrello and agnolotti al ragu – though I did add dessert this time, also served al carrello, i.e. a buffet of desserts including panna cotta, biscotti, tiramisu, pine nut tart and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember.

We also chatted up a very nice couple sitting next to us – he was Israeli, she was German – and traded stories about things to do in Rome, U.S. politics, travel, etc.  Another fine evening and a very nice way to end our trip…

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Buona sera, Roma!

Our car showed up that morning right on time, i.e. about five hours after we’d gotten home.  Then, a 90 minute flight to Frankfurt, a five-and-half hour layover (ugh – and not made anymore pleasant by the combination of hangover/indigestion/intestinal issues (I’m trying to be discreet, but I think you get the drift…  Let’s just say, I’m glad the Frankfurt airports have decent bathrooms) and a ten-and-half-hour flight to San Francisco – without Ambien.  That’s right – NO AMBIEN!  I’d idiotically packed it into my checked bag…  Oh well – Chris and I both got good seats, him just behind me, each of us on the aisle with no one seated next to us…

And finally back in SF.  No matter how great the trip, it’s always good to be back home…

Arrivederci, Roma – and ciao, cari!

La Dolce Vita Not Always as “Dolce” As One Might Hope…

Note: Had some difficulties posting photos while in Rome, but I continued to blog offline. I’ll be posting those entries over the next day or two.

Tuesday evening we had reservations at L’Altro Mastai, the fanciest place on our itinerary.  I’d made reservations a month ago and was really looking forward to our visit.  From what I’d read and heard, it sounded like the Gary Danko of Rome.  I had tried to call to reconfirm our reservation, but was having problems getting my Italian cellphone to work – or so I thought…  More on that later.

Before dinner, we had drinks atop the Hotel Raphael, a lovely and intimate location with a view of St. Peter’s and Castel San Angelo.  After drinks, not far to go to L’Altro Mastai, though of course we got quite lost trying to find it – it took us nearly 40 minutes to get from bar to restaurant, a distance of no more than a quarter mile…  When we finally arrived at L’Altro Mastai, it was closed – not a light on and locked up tight as a drum.  And by “closed”, I think maybe it was out of business – this would explain the difficulty in my attempts to call the restaurant earlier…  The restaurant’s phone was, in fact, disconnected…  UPDATE: the restaurant’s website indicates they are closed for renovations.  Nice of them to let me know!

As one would expect, I did not respond to this turn of events with anything resembling aplomb (Chris would probably describe my response as more akin to a complete wig-out).  Plan B was to return to the restaurant on a large terrace on a quiet street we’d seen next to the Hotel Raphael – though retracing our steps proved as difficult as it had been getting to where we were in first place…

Once we did find the place, we had a very nice meal – good pasta for me, a really tasty grilled steak for Chris (along with wonderful roasted potato slices) and a fantastic panna cotta for dessert – a perfect creamy consistency, tasting of cream and fresh egg yolks, napped with a bit of coffee syrup.

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The Pope is up there somewhere... I think he's the guy in white...

Wednesday was supposed to be our day to go to Tivoli, but we’d decided to wait a day, since we’d be getting home so late from dinner at L’Altro Mastai (hah!).  And turned out we did get home late, since we didn’t sit down for dinner until 10PM…

So, we slept in Wednesday morning and headed to the Vatican, planning to climb to the top of the dome and to have a more in-depth visit to the basilica.  Yes, that’s right – we went to the Vatican on Wednesday morning…  The one day to avoid going there, as the Pope leads his weekly general audience to the crowd in the square.  So, we got all the way there and realized we’d have to return later to get inside of the basilica…

Sta. Maria a Trastevere

Sta. Maria a Trastevere

Not too big a deal, but I was starting to sense a pattern this trip of plans going awry…  We followed the river down to Trastevere, our walking tour itinerary in hand.  Of course, we started off by getting lost as soon as we tried to find the first stop on the walk in Trastevere.   But eventually we found it ,  the church of St. Cecilia – it was closed; next stop, church of San Francesco a Repa – closed; next stop, Santa Maria a Trastevere – open!  Success at last! A very pretty little church – Chris lit a candle in memory of the mother of a dear friend of ours…

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Just the usual well-organized entry to Basilico San Pietro...

Back to the Vatican to try again.  Other than passing through security, which was a total mob scene (though we did manage to get through rather quickly by pushing our way past the many giant tour groups of shuffling, glassy-eyed visitors. Sorry Jesus! We were in a hurry…), things had calmed down considerably compared to the pandemonium earlier in the day.

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St. Peter's Square - a pretty amazing view from the dome.

We climbed the 200 or so steps to to the first stop inside the dome, where we could look down at the canopy over the altar, while getting an up-close view of the marvelous decorations on the dome itself.

The interior of the dome.

The interior of the dome.

From there, we ascended to the very top, crammed into the tiny veranda circling the crest of the dome’s exterior, with amazing views in all directions.  It was well-worth the strenuous climb, in spite of the hordes of ill-mannered teenagers from a country that shall remain nameless (though the name of the country rhymes with Bermany…)

Heading back down, the stairs let us our right into the Basilica itself.  The interior left me awestruck – it’s probably the most breathtaking interior space I have ever entered. Overwhelming and beautiful…

Chris in the Basilica, with Lucille and Ed looking down from above...

Chris in the Basilica, with Lucille and Ed looking down from above...

From there we wandered the historic district, looking for several shops I’d wanted to visit – no luck there, per usual…  One was supposed located at Corso Rinasciamento, 72 – but we’d already reached 101 and no 72 existed…  Sigh…  UPDATE: Two days later, we found the shop – our confusion stemmed from the fact that the street numbers are apparently assigned to buildings in a completely random fashion, i.e. number 72 was across from and past both 101 and 47…  Aah, la moda Italiana…

But then back to Trastevere for dinner at Paris, a restaurant well-known for its traditional Roman-Jewish cuisine…  We’d reserved for 9 but were hoping to sit down at 7:30, which is when we arrived…  But were informed by the very nice hostess that the restaurant wasn’t open yet – despite being fully staffed.  “Maybe try back in half-an-hour or so…”  Again with la moda Italiana, I guess – but still seems odd…

At any rate, we did return and were given a fine table in the corner of the terrace.  We shared an assortment of antipasti fritti – carciofi all Giuda (a house-specialty), mozzarella, zucchini, squash blossoms – that was sensational.  Simple and fresh, crispy and light…

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Pasta e ceci

Chris, refusing to heed my advice, ordered two pastas (I know! It was ghastly – it was just ghastly…), starting with pasta e ceci.  He loved it (as did I) – chickpeas in a thick soup with pasta.  Of course, he realized he might’ve overdone it on the pasta and I was able to take advantage of my rudimentary Italian to say to the waiter, “I tried to explain to my friend that having two pastas is strange…  But, as usual, he did not listen.  Is it possible to change?  He is crazy…  I am very sorry.”

Lucky for Chris, the answer was “yes” and he chose a stracotto di manzo con crocchette – described on the English part of the menu as “stew”, but in fact two slabs of beef, braised to falling-apart-tender in a thick sauce along with fried potatoes.  It was wonderful.

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Polpette di vitelle fritte con cicoria

I went for traditional – starting off with an excellent rigatoni all’amatriciana, the pasta chewy and al dente, the sauce rich and tasting of ripe tomatoes.  Then fried veal meatballs, almost the texture of pate insides a crispy exterior – they almost seemed bland at first, until I tasted the bitter chicory greens served alongside which pulled the whole dish together.  Dessert was tiny wild strawberries, no bigger than the tip of my pinky, with a scoop of gelato on top…

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Fragolini con gelato

Today, up very early and off to Tivoli.  The train ride there was uneventful (I slept most of the hour-long trip – a good thing, since apparently the man behind us had SARS and was coughing and hacking most of the way…).  The Villa d’Este, our first stop, is an easy 15-minute walk from the train station.

What a welcome respite from the noise and grit of Rome.  Since we’d arrived early, the gardens were nearly empty.  Set into a hillside, we descended from the villa, each turn of a corner bringing us to another amazing water fountain – the Oval Fountain, large and spectacular; the Hundred Fountains, stretching from one side of the garden to the other, with a row of different animal heads all the way across, each one spouting water from its mouth; or the tranquil Fish Ponds, with Neptune’s Fountain gushing majestically at one end.

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The Hundred Fountains at Villa d'Este

Next stop: Villa Adriana, a short bus ride and then a fifteen minute walk…  Two pieces of advice re. Villa Adriana: one, take the train back to Rome – the bus we took was as slow as molasses in January (due to traffic) and hot as hell; two, don’t go to Villa Adriana – it’s a big snooze fest…

Actually, I’m sure the site is fascinating to those who can appreciate archeology – which, as it turns out, does not include either Chris or me.  But we did have a nice lunch in the garden of the Hotel Adriano that lies just outside the main gate – and there was a cat at the restaurant.  He was my friend…

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Questo gatto è il mio amico!

OK – there’s actually plenty more to this story and the rest of the day, but I’ve grown weary of the blogging.  More to come…

Ciao, cari!

Another day, another adventure…

Yesterday, we met up with our guide Eric and a four other Americans outside the Imperial Forum.  Spent the next few hours getting poking around the Forum, then moved on to the Colosseo – the interior of which is simply fascinating and brings imperial Rome to life in a unique way, giving some idea of the structure of ancient Roman society, along with frisson of dreadful excitement as one imagines the gory spectacles performed in the arena…

Here we are - not being fed to the lions...

Had a decent pizza for lunch – and called Trattoria Monti to make dinner reservations, which went quite smoothly…  Or so I thought…  More to come on that front.

The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering up and down the streets near the Spanish Steps, checking out a few shops (once we got off Via Condotti, that is – which is filled with the likes Gucci, Cavalli, Bulgari and various other shops that we can’t afford in dollars, let alone in euros…).  A quick detour to San Crispino for gelato (the ciocolatto con rhum was sensational) and then home for a lie-down before dinner.

Trattoria Monti is just about a ten minute walk from our apartment, so we headed out with plenty of time to spare and found the restaurant quite easily.  Of course, we also found it to be locked up tight as a drum, steel roller door padlocked into place.  I redialed the number I’d called earlier to reserve – and when I asked the gentleman who answered “Questo e Trattoria Monti?”, he hung up…  Honestly, I remain baffled as to what happened or to whom I spoke during either phone call…

I was not especially happy with this turn of events (though Chris might use a somewhat more forceful description of my demeanor…).  And of course this was the one night we’d left the house without any guidebooks – so back we went to the apartment to figure out where to have dinner.  Apparently, Monday is a difficult night, since many places are closed..

Agnolotti con ragu

Agnolotti con ragu

We decided on La Piazetta – a simple little trattoria tucked into a tiny street just off Via Cavour.  It turned out to be my favorite meal thus far.  I started with the antipasti al carrello, i.e. the buffet of appetizers (though no unlimited breadsticks and salad like at the Olive Garden – can’t win ‘em all!).  Simple and fantastico – grilled red peppers, zucchini frittata, calamari,  tiny onions marinated with balsamic vinegar, fried potatoes, along with several others that I’ve forgotten.

For dinner, home-made agnolotti con ragu – tender and chewy with meat-filled centers in a fresh and straightforward tomato-meat sauce.  Chris had the same, only with spinach and cheese ravioli in pomodoro.  Just as with the antipasti, the dishes simple – and simply wonderful.

We skipped dessert so we could pop into the local gay bar for a drink.  The gay scene here is pretty quiet and diffuse, so it was fun to have a cocktail at Coming Out (ugh, what a name), a tiny caffe and bar that comes to life at night, all the boys and girls spilling out into the street in front, chatting and talking on their cellphones, with the Colosseo literally across the street.  Quite a nice way to wrap up our evening…

The Dome of St. Peter's seen from the Vatican Gardens.

The Dome of St. Peter's seen from the Vatican Gardens

Today, back to the Vatican for a tour of the gardens.  Having reservations, we got to bypass the most gigantic of the lines – but still had to line up to pass through security; then to the opposite side of the entry lobby, fighting our way through the teeming hordes to be checked-in for our reservation; then, we were sent off to another window to actually purchase the tickets; and finally pointed to a roped-off holding area while we awaited our guide.

But it was well worth the effort.  Though our group was on the large side, once we got into the gardens, it was like another world compared to the mobs fighting their way to the Sistine Chapel.  And our guide, Sra. Ubaldini was the greatest – a true Roman donna, done up in the standard lady-who-lunches uniform: straight navy skirt, navy hose and low navy pumps; a white blouse; a fabulous Ungaro jacket; and couple of understated gold rings and couple of strands of pearls; and the ubiquitous tan, Dior sunglasses and Gucci purse.

One of the many lovely views in the gardens.

One of the many lovely views in the gardens.

Best of all she was as font of information, filling us in not only on the gardens and the history, but on the behind-the-scenes of the Vatican today.  For example, apparently the wife of the director of the gardens isn’t too keen on living in Vatican City – all of the security means always having to log one’s coming and goings, advise when guests are coming, etc. – a “golden cage” is how our guide described it.  And apparently, Pope Benedict couldn’t bring his two cats to live with him in the Papal apartments (cats are apparently not allowed), but he has ensured that the feral cats living in the gardens are fed each day…

We also got to see the back of St. Peter’s Basilica – the only place one can see the Michelangelo’s actual work and construction, since the view from the square is all work done later to expand the size of the church – and consists virtually entirely of a newer facade..

La Verana

La Veranda

Had lunch at a gem of place, La Veranda in the Hotel Columbus.  Just about half-a-block from the entrance to St. Peter’s square, it is in the courtyard of the restaurant, facing a quiet side street, with a lovely little fountain in the center.  And the food was great.  I started with a marvelous salad of barley, carrots, corn and avocado topped with chunks of freshly grilled tuna; then fettuccine con cacio e pepe – another simple and simply delicious plate of pasta.

Chris has insisted I recreate this barley salad for him when we get home.

A quick visit to Santa Maria Maggiore on our way home (it’s just a short walk from our apartment), our usual daily stop at the supermercato and now off for drinks on the rooftop of the Hotel Raphael, overlooking the Piazza Navona…  In other words, a good day and what promises to be a lovely evening…

Ciao, cari!

What day is this?

I’m pretty sure it’s Sunday – and the last two days have been absolutely packed.  I don’t think I have the strength to go into too great a detail of the last 48 hours – other than to say it’s been pretty amazing.  At any rate, some random points and images…

Risotto with White Truffles

Risotto with White Truffles

Friday evening’s dinner was at Al Ceppo. The highlight of the evening was risotto with white truffles…  And the zabaione with fruit was a pretty darn good, too…

I think there's some famous something-or-other behind me...

I think there's some famous something-or-other behind me...

Saturday morning we slept in – first time this trip and what a delight.  Didn’t get going until 11 AM.  Walked up to Termini and bought tickets for one of those double-decker tour buses.  Very fun actually – drove around through the historic center, up around the Vatican and then we jumped off at Via Veneto.  Spent the rest of the afternoon wandering, with stops at the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps.

OMG! OMG! OMG! It's Valeria Marini!

OMG! OMG! OMG! It's Valeria Marini!

Much as we hated to admit it, one of the highlights of the day was our celebrity encounter.  Just below the Spanish Steps, there were mobs of people and some papparazzi surrounding the entrance to a some kind of shop.  We thought perhaps Angelina Jolie was in town – when in fact it was Valeria Marini! Can you believe it?

Of course, I have no idea who she is, but it was still great.  Later that night at dinner, we asked the young woman waiting on us what Valeria’s claim to fame is.  Is she an actress?  A singer? A multi-talented tour-de-force?  Her response – “Nothing.  She’s on reality TV and goes nude a lot.  She is sort of an embarrassment.” So, apparently, we had a brush with the Pamela Anderson of Italy – what could be better?

Had a quick bite to eat across from the Mausoleo di Agosto before meeting our tour guide, Lindsay Harris, who would be giving us a lesson in Roman architecture – starting at 5:30 as dusk was approaching, making for a marvelous transition from light to dark as we progressed.  It was just Chris and me plus one other gentleman (from San Francisco of all places), so it was wonderfully personal experience.  And Lindsay was a superb guide – sharing not only her knowledge but her passion for architecture and it’s language within the city of Rome.

We started at the Ara Pacis, and continued on to the Palazzo Borghese, the Trevi Fountain (a completely different experience at night) and several other piazze and campi. We stopped in at the glorious Pantheon – breathtaking both esthetically and structurally – and then ended our evening at the Piazza Navona.

A lovely pasta with shrimp at Trattoria...

A lovely pasta with shrimp at Trattoria...

Had dinner at Trattoria.  First rate “nuovo Siciliano” cuisine, especially the pasta – though, sadly, the cannoli we had for dessert were as dull as dishwater.  We were planning big night out at the gay disco after dinner, but we were both too tired, so off we went to our apartment.

Up early again this morning for our visit to the Galleria Borghese.  As always, a bit more difficult to find than we’d anticipated, but we found our way eventually.  Things started off fantastically when Chris lost his ticket (which I’d had to buy three months ago, since they sell out the limited number of tickets far in advance) – turned out he’d left it at the coat check and the per-usual adorable giovanotto at the counter had set it aside when he found it…  Crisis averted – though just barely.

I’m the first to point out that I’m something of a Philistine when it comes to art.  But Chris and I had similar responses to Bernini’s three masterpieces – Pluto  and Proserpina; Apollo and Daphne; and David – namely that we were nearly moved to tears.  I can’t even come close to describing the experience, let alone the works themselves – though one aspect that jumped out at me immediately was the way that Pluto’s hand is impressed into Persephone’s torso as he spirits her away; the marble is almost literally transformed into flesh before one’s eyes.

Chris in Trastevere

Chris in Trastevere

Then there is Apollo’s cape – one nearly hears it fluttering in the wind, the marble carved so skillfully as to be translucent.  And David, his weight bearing down on his front leg while his other leg extends behind him, balance on the tip of his toe, bites down on his lip as he concentrates on making sure his slingshot’s aim is true.  An afternoon that I shall never forget…

La dolce vita.

From here, on to Trastevere.  Stumbled around a bit, then stopped for a late lunch.  A lovely antipasto of grilled vegetables; pizza for me and spaghetti for Chris; and rounding things out, some tiramisu, biscotti and vin santo.  And our waitress was something of character – started off a bit surly, but turned out to be great fun…  At one point, shouting at me across the tables to verify for some other clients that the tiramisu was, in fact, buonissimo (which it was…).

Our waitress - surly yet nice.  Or nice yet surly?  Either way, we loved her...

Our waitress - surly yet nice. Or nice yet surly? Either way, we loved her...

A long walk home, with a little shopping on the way.  Looks like we may make an early night of it – we’re both still stuffed and our Ancient Rome tour starts at 8:45 tomorrow morning.  It’s funny – on the one hand, I feel like we’ve already done so much (and that we’ve been here for such a long time) but on the other, I’m realizing more than ever how much we won’t have time to do…  But we did toss our coins into the Trevi Fountain, so we can be assured of returning to Rome.

Ciao, cari!

Arriviamo a Roma

First, a brief update from Venice: on our way to dinner, as we crossed a large piazza filled with students drinking and having a great time, I see a tall guy standing surrounded by luggage in the middle of the piazza.  And what do you know, it’s Jack, one of my colleagues from the office…  We actually knew that we’d both be in Venice at the same time, but it was still pretty amazing to just stumble across someone from back home…

So, back to Rome…  We arrived at the station and found our way to the apartment quite easily.  It’s very nice – though the owner, who was here to meet us, also lives here part time – so the place is filled with photographs of himself…  A little peculiar, frankly, but other than that the apartment is great.

Chris on the steps to the Campodiglio

Chris on the steps to the Campidoglio

After unpacking and settling in, we headed to the Campidoglio.  Had a walk around and took in the wonderful view of the ruins of the Imperial Forum – just wanted to a little taste of ancient Rome to get us started.  Strolled back home, with a pit stop for gelato, as well as the farmacia for an ice pack, as I had managed to nearly wipe out in pothole, twisting my ankle on one foot and stepping on my own toe of the other foot…  Mamma mia – I was OK today, though the toe looks like it may be somewhat worse for wear…

Overlooking the Imperial Forum

Overlooking the Imperial Forum

Getting to dinner last night proved challenging.  First, we had difficulty finding a taxi; then, once we did, the driver didn’t know where the address was (but found it with GPS); and of course he drove like the pokey little puppy.

On top of everything else, Chris kept asking me if the taxi smelled like shit.  Even once we arrived at our destination, he kept insisting that something smelled like shit (though I hadn’t noticed).  He finally got up to check his shoes in the john – and sure enough, he’d stepped in a pile of dog crap the size of the Capitoline Hill.

So, in other words, our first day in Rome was off to a rollicking start…

I formaggi.

I formaggi.

At any rate, Checchino, a traditional Roman restaurant that first opened in 1887 in the Testaccio district, turned out to be a very nice place – though the menu was a bit offal-centric for our tastes.  I had an excellent penne all’arrabiata and Chris loved his bucatini all’ammatriciana.  I followed up with some lamb chops – pretty good, though quite fatty. And after dinner, Chris had a really good almond semifreddo, while I had a fantastic cheese course, including Parmigiano (served with honey) and one of the finest goat cheeses I’ve ever tasted.

Today, we were up at the crack of dawn, out of the apartment at 7:30 to find our way to the Vatican for our first walking tour.  We met up with our guide, Sara Magister, and the two other couples in our group.

Detail of one of the mosic floors in the Vatican

Detail of one of the mosaic floors in the Vatican

I won’t even try to describe the Vatican Museum – I’m not a skilled enough writer to convey the magnificence and beauty of what we little saw.  But I will tell you that Sara provided the best guided tour I’ve ever been on.  Before we even entered the main part of the museum, she spent nearly an hour familiarizing us with the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, its context, its importance technically and symbolically and the history-making recent cleaning of the ceiling, which completely changed contemporary understanding of Michelangelo – and the time flew by thanks to her passion for the subject and both the width and breadth of her knowledge.  I can’t imagine appreciating this splendid work of art to the extent that I do without having experienced Sara’s compelling description of its creation and the language and vocabulary of the work within the context of the Vatican, the Catholic church and the life of Michelangelo.  Truly a masterpiece…  and Sara is a truly superior guide.

The Hall of Maps, bearing an uncanny resemblence to the Fremont St. Experience in Las Vegas...

The Hall of Maps, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Fremont St. Experience in Las Vegas...

We also spent a fairly short amount of time (after over four hours in the Vatican Museum) in the Basilica San Pietro – the Pieta is achingly beautiful.  We left pretty quickly, due to exhaustion – but we’re planning to return for a closer look and perhaps a climb up to the Cupola.

Pizza Diavolo

Lunch at a nice little pizza place nearby, Pizzeria Piacere Molise – in fact best pizzas we’ve had so far.  And a table full of adorable Roman giovanotti at the table next to us…  Back on the Metro to our apartment – napping for Chris and blogging for me…  Tomorrow, we finally sleep in…

Ciao, cari!

Venezia – Days 2 & 3

Just boarded the train for Rome and we’re pulling out of the station.  Went for first class – not as glamorous as I’d hoped, but what’re you gonna do?

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Atop the Ponte Accademia

Yesterday was quite a full day.  Started off early and headed to the Accademia (with a quick stop at the American Express office – actually, not such a quick stop, as Chris just pointed out while reading over my shoulder.  And talk about not glamorous – it’s also a Western Union office…)

Anyhoo, we took a quick tour of the Accademia.  I have to confess, I was still a bit jet-lagged and tired (and maybe a little hungover), so I was at my most Philistine-ish. I enjoyed looking around, but was anxious to move on.

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I'm so naughty! And clever - I'm sure no one else would think of this pose...

Next stop was the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. This remains a really delightful oasis of modern art in the center of Venice.  We looked at most of the small and very impressive collection, plus made a really quick run through the special exhibition of mid 19th and early 20th century art.  And of course, the sculpture garden is as lovely as ever.

From here we did our usual “try to find a particular restaurant and get completely lost in the process”.  But since we know this would happen, it was fine.  We were in a part of the city we hadn’t seen before, so just wandering up and down the narrow streets and along the canals was great fun.

"Let's see...  How do I ask for more wine?"

"Let's see... How do I ask for more wine?"

We did eventually find the Locanda Montin, with it’s large garden patio out back (we were the only patrons when we arrived, though a French couple showed up a bit later).  The food was very tasty.  Caprese salad with OK tomatoes and absolutely delicious mozzarella; then, for me, house-made tortelloni, filled with cheese and arugula in a tomato-basil sauce; and for Chris, meltingly tender and fluffy gnocchetti with shrimp and asparagus, served gratineed.

After lunch, we headed to the Frari church.  We’d brought along a Rick Steve’s podcast audio tour – nice to have, though the commentary veers into “cutesy” sometimes.  Titian’s altar piece was incredible – and it’s always much nicer to have a little historical context when looking at great art.  Apparently, his portrayal of Mary as very human (even sexy) was quite shocking at the time.

Home for a nap, then off to dinner at Ristorante Riviera. Since we’d already reconnoitered it earlier, we thought finding it again would be a snap.  Hah!  Got more lost than usual, in a part of town we hadn’t seen before…  So, I had to practice my Italian – I asked a lady (who’d just finished up yelling her conversation to her friend leaning out a second-story window.  Molto Italiano…) how to get where we were going.  She walked us most of the way, taking us along a dirt path behind the military barracks (along with her beagle, Paco), keeping up a stream of conversation, about half of which I was able to understand and respond to.  She was a real savior and so very kind…

So, we finally found the restaurant.  Things got started off well when the brought us each a glass of Prosecco before we’d even gotten our menus – surely the way to our hearts is with free booze.

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Scallops with Artichoke Hearts

At the recommendation of our waiter, we shared scallops served atop artichoke hearts to start.  They were very nice – Italian scallops are typically served with the “cord” still attached, the orange muscle that I assume is attached to the shell.  Chris and I were both a bit trepidatious, fearing that some sort of substance would come shooting out of it when cut.  But it turned out to be tender and delicious.

Next, we had an excellent risotto with shrimp and asparagus.  Tender rice and fresh juicy shrimp – my only quibble was that it was a bit undersalted.

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Grilled Branzino and Fritto Misto

For dinner, we had a grilled branzino, brought whole to the table where our waiter expertly removed the head and bones before serving us.  The fish was wonderful – simply prepared, impeccably fresh and delicious.  Along with this, we had fritto misto: calamari, more scallops, sardines.  This too was very good, everything crispy, hot and very fresh.

The only disappointment?  They’d run out of dessert!  They did offer biscotti and sweet wine, which actually sounded perfect.  And the wine was – but the biscotti were essentially the Italian version of Keebler’s.  Oh well – our waiter further ameliorated the situation with a round of limoncello.

During dinner, we did our usual eavesdropping and then attempting to analyze the group.  We thought it was a bunch of Americans all from the same cruise ship (and, we guessed, McCain supporters), based on the extensive discussion of cruises and their various pros and cons (one woman was going on and on about Princess vs. Carnival…  “If they could see me now…”).

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Arrividerci Venezia!

On the way out, we chatted a bit with them – turned out they’re all on a tour together…  And they all support Obama, including the lady from northern Viriginia and the two Canadians (who told us to look them up if we’re forced to flee to Toronto when President Palin starts rounding up the queers…).  So, as usual, even though we’d had fun jumping to conclusions and mocking them, they turned out to be as nice as can be.

We also chatted a bit with the couple on our opposite side.  We’d heard them say they were from Atlanta – but turns out only of late.  She was Brazilian, he was from upstate NY, and they’d also lived in Walnut Creek.  And like me, she is something of an amateur travel writer.  I don’t think we exchanged names (or was I too in my cups to recall?), but I did give her my website.  So, if you’re reading this, Signora Atlanta-Brazil, buongiorno e grazie!

Back home to pack up for our early trip to Rome.  As much as I’m looking forward to getting there, I’m very sad to be leaving Venice – there’s so much still to see and do…

Ciao, cari!