New Zealand Day 0: Hagley Park perambulation & restaurant revelations

It has been stated and re-stated on this blog that I am not an energetic traveler. For this reason, after a red eye or overnight flight, I consider my first day in a far off locale as a recovery day. I have no goal beyond arriving in one piece and finding my lodgings, perhaps unpacking for good measure.

If I can manage to stay awake until “local bedtime” or something like it, I consider it a journey well completed.

It goes without saying that the voyage to New Zealand is a long one from almost anywhere else. This trip, in particular, found me inclined to give myself a break on “day zero.” Even DH, who usually hits the ground running* gave himself the afternoon off for mental and physical recuperation.

Our most gracious hosts at the Roma on Riccarton Luxury Motel in Christchurch let us check in early. Read my more thorough review of this well located, comfortable lodging here.

It was mid-morning when we arrived from the airport, but I wasn’t competent enough in the moment to note the precise hour. DH’s colleague was kind enough to pick us up from baggage claim. It was a quick 15 minute or so drive into town.

After dropping our bags—and taking one of those glorious post-red eye flight showers that heals body and spirit—I stretched out to rest my grumpy joints while DH did the manly provider thing and went in search of sustenance.

Without a rental car at this stage of the journey, he set out on foot. Happily, a natural foods store was our nearest grocery, and it was only a block or two away. He picked up convenience foods we could enjoy if hunger hit at odd hours due to the inevitable jetlag. Almonds, cherry tomatoes, bananas, and fizzy water topped my list.

Oh yes, and some local New Zealand wine. It was research so I could share with you, of course! DH opted for a few more exotic fruits for himself. I know there were figs because I ended up spilling them all over the floor of our eventual rental car.

We also needed to stock up on non-perishable, portable snack foods for our upcoming journey across the Southern Alps on the TranzAlpine train. Reviews warn that the cafe car on board sometimes runs out of food, though more often on the return journey from Greymouth. I’ll add a link when I eventually review that trip.

After this much refreshment, we took advantage of visiting the Southern Hemisphere in February and went for a walk in the park.

NZ trip Hagley Park sign - 1Ah, summer in February! It was a breezy but beautiful 70º F day in Christchurch, and we were staying just a few blocks from Hagley Park. As any New Englander can tell you, February usually means bundling up and shoveling snow, not short sleeves and outdoor pursuits.

Like cricket!

We did indeed spy folks playing cricket in a designated section of the park. It looked like a casual game to me, which is to say no one was wearing a spiffy white outfit. As I’m wildly unclear about the details of the game of cricket, including the usual costume, take all of this with a grain of salt.

For all I know, they were doing something else entirely, but the signs did say it was a cricket… field? Court? Ground? One of those things they were holding might have been a wicket. I’m probably the wrong source to be reporting on this particular topic.

Terminology aside, it added local color to my experience of the park.

NZ Hagley Park me walking

Summer day in Hagley Park; notice my big hat for sun protection

On what I believe was Victoria Lake, there were people sailing beautiful little toy boats. Terminology again: I suspect I’m supposed to call them “model” boats instead of toys because the skippers were older men, not children, and they were lovely ships. Probably they’re also “ships” not mere “boats,” too. Anyone know?

Again, charming, and the sort of thing I delight in seeing. I have a very soft spot for miniature models of almost anything.

Naturally, I failed to get photographs of any of this.

Luckily, DH snapped a few sunny park shots, including the one above where you can appreciate my enormous, sun-protective CoolibarBeach Hat. Its internal cord was absolutely vital to keep it on my head with the stiff breeze that kept blowing, and sun protection is a necessity in this part of the world.

Here’s my complete New Zealand summer capsule wardrobe overview.

There were loads of young people partaking in the usual sunny afternoon pastimes. Joggers, frisbee golfers, and cyclists abounded. Ladies strolled arm in arm with heads together. Fitness buffs followed a marked cardio circuit. All of this was a scene very like I would have seen on a summer day at home, but probably not in February.

It was easy to see what a central role this park has held since it was set aside as green space by Christchurch’s early settlers in 1855, though. It showed great foresight about the value of nature and open space to city dwellers, even if the park mirroring the Canterbury region overall is dominated by imported plants that better reflect European species than those native to New Zealand.

Hagley Park offered yet another sort of refuge after a devastating earthquake struck the city in 2011. Immediately adjacent to the Central Business District—much of which was cordoned off for up to 859 days! for repairs—the open space of the park made an ideal escape in the immediate aftermath of destruction, and must still figure in survivors’ minds as a place of safety should flight God forbid! become necessary again. At least one memorial to that quake was held here, as are many more joyous public events.

NZ Hagley Park bird flying away

When I was in the park, I first noticed both the abundance and variety of the birds** in New Zealand. I’m not even a casual bird-watcher, nor do I have any special skill or knowledge in that pursuit, though I did enjoy that Steve Martin/Jack Black/Owen Wilson comedy, The Big Year, which made bird watching seem pretty compelling. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth a couple of hours.

Many of New Zealand’s birds seemed visibly different to me. There was a bit of a tendency in shape that caught my eye, and there seemed to be a difference in movement patterns in some of them, too. I mean, I recognized some that are either imports (swans) or probable commuters (ducks and geese) from the less distant world, but there were also quite obviousothers.

NZ me with moa silhouette annotatedI think it is so cool when you can see highlighted before you the difference between Here and There as you travel. That’s at least some of what I’m hoping for when I venture far out into the world.

Christchurch itself presents rather fewer immediately obvious differences from places I’ve experienced before and elsewhere, and that’s somewhat by design. It is known as “the Most English of Cities” in New Zealand. (I may be getting that motto slightly wrong, but that’s the gist of it.)

This is a place that English people and others chose to settle and begin new lives, not a site of penal transportation, like the American and Australian colonies. I was told by DH’s hosts from the University that skilled builders and craftspeople, in particular, were encouraged and invited to come to Christchurch by leaders of the new city, and that one still sees evidence of the same tradition of excellence when getting work done on a home today.

Though the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake is still plainly visible around this small, approachable city—cranes and construction fences pop up every few blocks—the desire to re-create a certain kind of “Home” is writ large here. Christchurch is a city that celebrates its British heritage.

In spite of that pride, there’s nothing forced or Disney-esque in the implementation. As is common around New Zealand, one of the strongest themes I experienced here was that of a sensible, measured approach to making life function smoothly.

Homes and buildings appear to be built and maintained to a high standard. Public services seem to be well managed and placed thoughtfully throughout communities. The needs of travelers are seen to, with roads well marked and attractions highlighted in a clear but unobtrusive way.

Facilities*ahem* toilets, even public ones in far flung locales, are generally present where wanted and kept to a high standard of hygiene when compared to similar American ones.

DH hates to travel, but he liked New Zealand. It’s an easy place to appreciate.once you’ve recovered from the long flight.

We spied several restaurants as we meandered back to the hotel, but, in our exhaustion, were more inclined to squabble than make sensible decisions about where we wanted to eat. The glory of the internet is that menus can be found for almost everywhere, and we settled on an early dinner at Trevino’s, in large part because it didn’t require crossing the busy street out front that had increasing traffic as rush hour loomed.

Also, they offered a plain and simple steak for DH, and he declared it good.

As usual, I confronted the difficulty of ordering something I knew I’d like, or something more daring that might prove too exotic for me to actually eat. I dared to order the Moroccan Spiced Meatballs from the Small Bites menu, and they were fantastic. I added a side salad and had the perfect size meal for my appetite.

This was also when I discovered that nearly every dish served in New Zealand comes with large pats of butter. This made sense with my sliced bread at dinner, but surprised me alongside an order of nothing but chocolate cake at a roadside cafe. Is that a bit odd to anyone else?

The restaurant service we received in New Zealand tended to be friendly, competent, but not overly quick. It also seemed usual to step up to the counter to pay even in sit down mid-range restaurants with table service, but whether that was due to our mismatched sense of urgency with staff or actual policy, I’ll probably never know.

We didn’t try fine dining even once on this trip, so I can’t offer a comparison.

Food served was almost universally good to very good, especially with regard to quality of ingredients. DH found it fairly easy to order the simple, fresh foods he prefers. I had no trouble finding something interesting—but approachable to my various sensitivities and picky preferences—wherever we went.

It was common to encounter “different” spice combinations from what would typically be seen on equivalent American menus, but also easy to order a relatable dish for a finicky eater. Along the same lines, one could eat “the usual” to an American beef or chicken almost everywhere, but lamb and unknown to me species of fish were also widely available.

Menus almost always indicated items suitable for a variety of special diets. It was common, though not universal, to see Vegan, Gluten Free, and Dairy Free choices marked. Servers always knew, or were willing to find out, about common allergens and frequently avoided ingredients.

Overall, food in New Zealand reminded me most of America’s Pacific Northwest, at least in the foodie oriented and health conscious venues I’m likely to frequent. Beets are very popular these days in both places.

Specifically, I’d liken it to the farm to table ethos prevalent on the San Juan Islands off the Washington Coast where lots of stuff is fresh and local, in part because it’s sometimes easier to grow your own on an island rather than trucking boating stuff in. As with New Zealand, they’re lucky enough to boast an awesome climate for growing temperate food crops. It turns out to be much easier to “eat locally” when you live in an area of agricultural abundance.

Excellent coffee was almost universal, and I had to fight my baser nature to avoid sleepless, hyper caffeinated nights. McDonald’s ads and gas stations touted their “barista made coffee,” though I didn’t test quality in either of these to share an opinion.

nz-petrol-gas-station-espresso-barista-coffee-1.jpg

Another frequent sight in the cafes I visited was a self serve counter or tray for tap water drinkers. Unlike most other places I’ve been, this usually included small bottles or pitchers to make table side refills super convenient. Aside from discouraging the sale of wasteful disposable bottled water, and encouraging a healthy level of calorie free hydration, this is ideal for groups with a lot of water drinkers or moms with kids’ cups to refill. Constantly. Because kids can be a real pain, especially when you travel alone with them.

NZ restaurant tap water glass free availableMy father routinely asks servers in the USA to please “leave a pitcher” of ice water on our table, but sometimes gets told the restaurant doesn’t have enough extra vessels to oblige. New Zealand offered the smartest solution to this situation that I’ve ever seen: not just glasses, but pitchers for sharing, too.

Is there nothing the Kiwis can’t do better than the rest of the world?

Right, yes: allowing pedestrians to cross safely is not their forte. But, come on, no country is perfect. New Zealand just comes really close.

*i.e., hits the hotel room’s most comfortable piece of furniture with laptop humming

**Some of the birds shown here were photographed elsewhere, or by DH, but all images were captured in New Zealand. My pictures aren’t really organized enough for me to recall the difference, but I’ll try to specify if anyone is curious about any particular one. Let me know in the comments!

A digression on public toilets in New Zealand:

I actually took a fair number of photos of public toilets on this trip. Not because I’m a crazy potty pervert, but because, in New Zealand, even off the beaten path, the facilities were almost always clean, well-maintained, and appropriately suppliedwith the necessary paper, soap, etc. As a tourist, that’s something I’d like to know about a place, but it doesn’t feel very delicate to inquire.

I feel comfortable posting photos of the worst public restrooms I used in New Zealand, because they weren’t very bad at all.

There was a paper toilet roll on the floor and it didn’t offer soap. The floor had a bit of tracked in dirt because the parking area wasn’t paved, but it looked like it hadn’t been cleaned for hours, not weeks. That’s it.

The primitive toilet along a trail had some rubbish on the floor, but it was mostly clean, dry looking paper. The graphics on the instructional poster suggest they get a lot of visitors from non-Western nations who use squat toilets, so perhaps that was “seat covering” paper that ladies often use when something like footprints decorate the rim? Even here, with no running water, there was hand sanitizer on offer, and the dispenser was full. The building itself was sound; insects were successfully excluded unlike most similar facilities I’ve used in the USA.

Even the public washrooms in a Christchurch Metro bus station were something I would use without being in physical pain from need. I think most American women who’ve used big city facilities will understand why I choose to comment on the fact!

What I wore in New Zealand: summer capsule wardrobe for 10 days out of Christchurch

Nothing, not even living through the experience, will reconcile my mind to a summer capsule wardrobe for a February trip. That’s the reality of visiting the antipodes, however, and it was quite a treat to leave the wretched winter weather of New England for a respite in New Zealand, however brief.

Even 10 days is brief when you’ve flown 9,300 miles to get there!

NZ capsule wardrobe pictorial accessories - 1I planned a wardrobe for this trip,* and then, after some reflection, cut it back further to roughly what’s shown in the first image. As I traveled with it, I realized that it was, in fact, a tiny bit larger than it needed to be. I wore all but one miniscule garment that I carried, though, and we weren’t burdened with an unmanageable amount of stuff.

NZ Hagley Park me walkingMost important of all, I had what I needed to be comfortably dressed throughout the ten day trip. I’m a traveler with joint pain and an autoimmune condition who remains bound and determined to make it to more corners of the globe. Smart packing isn’t a hobby for me, it’s a necessity.

NZ capsule wardrobe - model tunic hatThe week before we arrived, our primary destination, Christchurch, baked in 90º+ F temperatures, but we had a cooler trend and the remnants of a cyclone to deal with. What I packed would have worked for either week’s weather, so it was a solid wardrobe plan.

Whether or not you choose to carry enough to cover last week’s weather as well as the forecast temperatures is a personal choice. I’m more comfortable being over- than underprepared, especially when setting a modest pace with no special events that demand tight connections or a particularly quick turnaround between destinations. Continue reading

Roma on Riccarton Luxury Motel in Christchurch, New Zealand: everything you need, with a smile

We didn’t choose the Roma on Riccarton Luxury Motel near Christchurch‘s Hagley Park and a reasonable walk from the Central Business District. Since DH was traveling for work, his extraordinarily helpful host from a local University made our reservations.

Sometimes, collegiate sponsorship means staying in student housing that is barely adequate though students these days are getting fancier digs than I remember! Other hosts seek to thrill my illustrious spouse with “charming” accommodations in historic properties. Those are my favorite, but his nightmare. DH prefers predictable, three- to four- star chain hotels with room service offering standard American fare. If there isn’t a basic hamburger* available on the menu, he’ll come home sighing about his stay.

Getting back to the Roma on Riccarton, the most important thing a foreigner should know is that the motel designation does not carry a downmarket connotation in New Zealand like it does in America. It would be hard to take a name combining “Luxury” and “Motel” seriously back home.

NZ Motel Roma on Riccarton - street viewIn the USA, I tend to avoid motels when traveling alone or as a solo mom with children in tow. I prefer the greater security of indoor corridors and staff at a centralized front desk. It’s absolutely true that there’s a lot of convenience to unloading from the car straight through a motel room’s door. It’s also true that crime, both violent and petty, makes that same easy access doorway a risk in many places.

This time, I was staying with my husband, and the Roma on Riccarton parking lot was small, open to bustling Riccarton Road, and frequented by the cheerful owner and his wife.

I felt quite safe staying here, and we were confident enough in our surroundings to leave windows open for ventilation night and day.

NZ Motel Roma on Riccarton - doorNZ Motel Roma on Riccarton - parking lotThe entire property presented a welcoming and cheerful aspect. The central car park wasn’t overly busy, and it didn’t create any noise nuisance for us, either. The light colored, stucco exterior had an almost Mediterranean appearance, but was modernized by the extensive use of glass in large doors and windows.

Perhaps it was due to New Zealand’s strict building codes for seismic resilience, etc., but noise from other guests or the busy road simply was not an issue. If I hadn’t seen cars and people coming and going, I could’ve assumed I was alone in this motel based strictly on volume.

Though centrally located, rooms here are very quiet.

Motel comfort and amenities

Bed

Most vital to any lodging’s rating, in my opinion, is a comfortable bed of reasonable size. We found that at the Roma on Riccarton. Our room—of the standard, Executive Studio, not spa bath type—had a large (queen?) bed made up with crisp white linens.

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Hokitika Gorge and the town of the same name on New Zealand’s West Coast

The town of Hokitika on New Zealand’s West Coast reminded me of a nostalgic seaside experience I’d never actually had. Though the views are spectacular and tourism services are plenty, the region maintains an element of the undiscovered country. Sure, there are tourists, but they don’t overwhelm the place.

There’s an electrician’s shop on beachfront property. Industrial spaces like these have been gentrified in every seaside town I’ve visited in the USA. Driving along Highway 6 from Greymouth, you’ll see cows in a pasture with a view. More than a view, this is 100% ocean frontage, and the cows don’t even appreciate their prime real estate. They just stand there nibbling the ever-growing grass as the Tasman Sea churns beside them.

On a Sunday afternoon in February–New Zealand’s summer–the easy availability of parking in Hokitika’s heritage district made me fear we’d arrived after the shops and restaurants had closed. In fact, there were a few shuttered doors, but most cafes were serving and opportunities to buy pounamu (greenstone) and possum merino abounded. I was also struck by the number of book shops and vinyl record stores for a little hamlet. No wonder they call themselves “the cool little town.”

Having arrived on the TranzAlpine train to an hour of heavy downpours in Greymouth, we learned immediately to appreciate the sun when it showed its face. Make hay–or make merry!–as soon as the sun shines.

Note: Every season warrants foul weather gear in the Westland. Do not visit New Zealand without a rain jacket unless you plan to buy one for an apt souvenir.

Our decision to store the large baggage with a helpful Greymouth i-Site Visitor Center employee at the station while we ate a late lunch and let the crowds disperse from the car rental counters turned out to be clever. An hour after the TranzAlpine’s arrival and subsequent return to the Canterbury Plains, we were the only people requesting information in the fully staffed station that had been a scrum a short while before.

I still forgot to ask where I could buy postage stamps, but not because of madding crowds. Chalk that one up to my aging brain or jet lag.

Note: My postcards arrived about two weeks after I mailed them from a downtown Christchurch streetside post box. Don’t be surprised if you beat your posted letters home.

“Hiring” a car, while not essential, offers the West Coast visitor the most flexibility to vary one’s itinerary with the rapidly changing weather. Neither DH nor I particularly enjoyed driving a strange car on the “wrong” side of the road, but the low population density and clear signage in our native language made the process manageable. He never did master using the turn signals backwards, though. We ran our windshield wipers every time we turned.

The next morning, being blessed with stunning weather, sunny and warmer than average, sent us from our oceanside B&B in Awatuna straight to Hokitika Gorge… after a better than average continental breakfast and one more cup of coffee.

The GPS knew the way, but the simple tourist map available everywhere plus bright yellow informational signs at every relevant crossroads would have gotten us to the popular site without any need for modern technology.

New Zealand rates and advertises many public parks with specific advice for fitness levels and time required to complete each track. This attention to detail is reflected on road signs as well.

The primary car park at Hokitika Gorge was full by 10 AM, but the overflow lot had plenty of space when we arrived. Parking looked a bit more difficult closer to noon, but there were definitely still spaces available. I’ve found that most popular tourist destinations are best seen either early or late in the designated hours, and that seemed to hold true here.

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Christchurch Botanical Gardens and Ilex Cafe: a bevy of birds and 1 bad barista

A walk in the park…

It’s 54ºF, with winds gusting lustily and constant rain—the aftermath of cyclone Gita. So naturally I’m touring the Christchurch Botanic Gardens today.

NZ trip Hagley Park sign - 1I meant to endure the walk through Hagley park—a virtual ghost town compared to our first stroll here on the sunny afternoon of our arrival—before ducking into the adjacent Canterbury Museum and out of the rain. That’s what all the other tourists seem to be doing.

NZ Hagley Park empty in rain - 1I pass only one other pedestrian as I cross the the park from west to east on my way from our lodging at the Roma on Riccarton Motel.

…and in the Christchurch Botanic Garden

In spite of the rain, or perhaps because of it, the patinaed garden gates beckon.

I’m grateful that I took to heart the most common piece of packing advice I heard for New Zealand: bring a rain coat in any season. My 20 year old REI Gore-Tex jacket continues to serve me very well.NZ Hagley Park gate

The Armstrong Lawn opens out near the entrance to the museum. Dripping flowers and hopping birds catch my eye.

NZ trip statue man - 1

Statesman William Sefton Moorehouse appears unperturbed in spite of the foul weather

I wander over to snap a photo of the dolphin fountain before being tempted along by a glimpse of the Curator’s House. It’s operated as a cafe now, but a charming structure put to any use.

NZ Botanic Garden Peacock Fountain - 1Next to this is a beguiling kitchen garden, leading to a peek at the Avon river, and even more avian species. I realize that I can’t resist walking through an arbor. I pass through each as I encounter it, letting them dictate my path through the Botanic Garden.

NZ trip fruit arbor irresistable

Fruit tree arbor

NZ trip arbor beckoning

NZ trip landing under water - 1

Avon River flooded landing

The river is taking up more than its fair share of the park today, but the ducks enjoy that fact.

So does a small, blue heron. He appears to be waiting for something as he stands in a protected patch of grass behind a fence; it might be brunch, or the departure of the men preparing a stage for some upcoming event.

NZ Botanic Garden birds Ducks

Ducks on Avon River in Hagley Park, Christchurch, NZ

NZ Botanic Garden birds Heron

Heron in flooded park

I know very little about birds, plus have poor eyesight and limited patience. In spite of this, New Zealand makes me seriously consider taking up bird watching as a hobby. It’s simply teeming with interesting winged creatures.

Birds in the rain keep busy nabbing worms on the run crawl from flooded soil, bathing in the puddles, and napping with heads tucked neatly under wings.

I can’t give you the names of any more of these feathered friends, but it is often the tiny “city birds” dining. Two of them would fit in my hand if I could coax them out of the bush. I call them Two-in-the-hand birds for the rest of my time in Christchurch.

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Managing chronic pain on the 12+ hour flight to New Zealand

Since developing chronic pain that accompanies an autoimmune condition, I’ve continued to indulge my love of travel, but learned to adapt my bookings and my belongings to minimize pain and maximize comfort.

 

Flights of six hours or so are regular occurrences for me and my family. I’ve had a couple of very painful trips of this duration, but, more typically, I can tolerate them by adjusting my medication slightly and employing a few aids such as wrist braces, inflatable cushions, and hot water bottles.

 

This winter, I faced the longest single flight I’ve ever taken: 12 hours and 40 minutes just for one leg from Los Angeles, CA to Auckland, New Zealand. The combination of traversing the United States from our New England home (6.5 hours), crossing the Pacific (12.7 hours), then connecting to our final destination of Christchurch, NZ on the South Island (1.4 hours) made for a total time in the air of 20.5 hours.

Of course, one must also add to that total the requisite airport waiting time required by international flight connections, customs, security, and the necessity of allowing adequate buffers in case of delays. At least two full days of my calendar were bound to be eaten up by this voyage in each direction.

After considering many options, I elected to travel in two distinct stages for both directions of travel. This meant parting ways with my husband entirely for the domestic portion of our trip. His schedule doesn’t allow for an unnecessary day spent in transit where tighter connections are possible.†

I was away from home for a total of fourteen days; DH, by taking his domestic and international flights serially on the way out—and heading home on a red eye straight off the international leg—traveled for twelve days.

Though this post isn’t really meant to be a trip report, it must be said: even two weeks is barely adequate for visiting the antipodes. If you can squeeze more days out of your schedule, use them for a trip of this magnitude.

New Zealand is awesome, and well worth every hard won vacation day.

My itinerary outbound:

BOS-PDX on Alaska Air 33, Saturday 16:20-20:10

Three night stay with family in the Pacific NW

PDX-LAX on Alaska Air 568, Tuesday 10:50-13:22

LAX-AKL on Air New Zealand 5, Tuesday 21:40-Thursday 07:20*

AKL-CHC on Air New Zealand 527, Thursday 09:00-10:20

My itinerary for the return:

CHC-AKL on Air New Zealand 574, Friday 20:00-21:20

AKL-LAX on Air New Zealand 2, Friday 22:50-13:35**

Overnight hotel stay at the Crown Plaza LAX

LAX-BOS on Virgin America flight 1360, Saturday 07:05-15:34

Itinerary adaptations to reduce pain

I’ll repeat what I feel was the single most important adaptation I made to my itinerary to accommodate my autoimmune condition and its symptoms: I took extra time.

Travel. Stop. Recover. Repeat.

Heading west, I took advantage of family who live near the Portland airport who don’t seem to mind my visits, spending three nights at their home. This sleepover gave me time to recover from the initial cross country flight and ease my body’s adjustment to a change of three time zones.

NZ Crowne Plaza LAX hotel room - 1Upon arrival in New Zealand, I had already acclimated from the Eastern to Pacific zone (USA West Coast) which represents half of the total time shock. Though the flight is lo-o-o-o-ong, most of the travel between California and New Zealand is in a southerly direction. You only drop three more time zones on that 12 hour flight.

Heading west is also usually less difficult in terms of jet lag.

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Travel Pairings: Literature & lodging in Catalunya, Spain

What to read before making a trip to Catalunya, Spain—the region that includes Barcelona.

When I begin planning to visit a new destination, my thoughts turn first to literature. Oh, I always skim a guidebook or two, and I do the now obligatory stroll through TripAdvisor and Google’s offerings, but I go places to try to understand them. I want to get a sense of the gestalt of the community.

Who are these people? How has the local culture evolved? Why does a visit here offer up its particular sounds, tastes, and experiences?

For a bookworm like me, the answers—or at least, the first teasing tastes of truth—come most readily via literature. Whether the perspective of a book is that of an insider or a sojourner in a foreign land, the contours of the place begin to take shape as I delve into its stories.

What I read before visiting Barcelona

Black Bread by Emili Teixidor

Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas R. Hicks

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (skimmed)

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti

Major Themes: Spanish Civil War and man’s relationship with food

I began my exploration of Catalan culture with one of the few novels I could find translated from that language: the award winning Black Bread. Here is a great work of literature, evocatively written, even in translation. It was a lovely read, and I enjoyed it immensely, but I do love a heavy novel bursting with symbolism, deeper meaning, and complex themes. I.e., this isn’t a beach read.

Spain Catalan book quote Black Bread - 1And here is some of what I noticed about the intersection of Spain and Travel: so very many people seem to think only of the hedonistic pleasures of warm sand and tapas when they contemplate a visit to the region. My visits have all been in late fall or winter, and my interests tend toward museums and history, so take my reckoning with that grain of salt. Continue reading

Barcelona 2017: B&B Wine & Cooking in El Pla del Penedès, Spain review

Attempting to wrangle every thought I’ve entertained about a week long trip to Europe would result in my posting about it after weeks if not months passed. Instead, I’ll try to focus rather narrowly on little slices of the journey. Knowing my propensity to go on and on and on, this might also keep my posts to a digestible length for the digital age.

Foodie fantasy outside the city of Barcelona

Here’s a not-so-secret secret: I’ve avoided driving in any nation except my ownokay, I’m ignoring Canada. Forgive me, neighbor to the north! But your roads are so similar to my own, and I can bring my own trusted car. It doesn’t count.

On this, my most recent trip to Europe, I faced a conundrum. Hire a rental car, or give up a much anticipated trip?

Barcelona 2017 B and B Wine Cooking car Renault Espace - 1

Renault Espace, felt like the largest car in  Spain

I rented a car. I hated almost every minute of driving the lovely but oversized Renault Espace in even small cities like Vilafranca del Penedès and Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, but it did provide me with the means to reach a really sublime rural experience: a mother and son private cooking class with the owner at B&B Wine & Cooking in El Pla del Penedès, about 45 minutes outside of Barcelona.

Background: civil unrest in Catalunya & a nervous husband

Barcelona 2017 Vilafranca Catalan flag - 1

Monument in Vilafranca with Catalan flag flying proud, NOT the national flag of Spain

My husband, whom we might politely describe as “travel averse,” was trying to dissuade me from joining him in Barcelona with DS2 at all. DH was near to canceling his own appearance at a really interesting conference. Why? The Catalan independence movement, and media depictions of dissent and violence that were widespread in the months leading up to our trip.

Back in the spring, when I found a reasonable* coach airfare to join DH on this jaunt to Spain, I immediately invited my children to come along. Shocking no one, my little guy opted to miss a week of school and join us; to my chagrin, my punk teen decided he would rather stick to his usual academic routine at home and demurred.

Though I find myself pondering whether someone could have switched DS1 at birth** for my rightful child, I do sort of understand the teenager’s desire to assert his independence by doing something—anything!—different from what his parent suggests.

Beyond the city limits: choosing an experience

So there were three of us headed to Spain in the early winter of 2017. We would be staying in the heart of Barcelona for the four nights of the conference. After that, DH booked his ticket home at the earliest possible moment. To save over $1000 each, DS2 and I needed to stay over until Saturday.

Barcelona 2017 B and B Wine Cooking outside flowers

Spain flowers even in winter

Originally, I’d booked accommodations in the medieval center of Girona for the parent-child short break. Girona is about an hour north/northwest of Barcelona. Trains, while available, aren’t super convenient to that village, however. There is no city-traffic-avoiding route back to BCN Barcelona International Airport during morning rush hour without a private car. Parking in old Girona is also not known to be convenient.

While I was keen to visit this ancient town due to its beautifully preserved Jewish quarter and its being the setting for a great series of medieval mysteries, it turns out that the world has discovered Girona because Game of Thrones has filmed there. That’s a little too much pop popularity for me to visit El Call right now.

DH, fearing he would leave and then a transit strike—or worse, total civil unrest!—would leave his wife and child at the mercy of a rioting mass of Catalan separatists, wanted me to make a plan better suited to last minute changes and further removed from the politicized masses.

I booked a rental car from BCN for the morning of DH’s departure. This option provided us with freedom of movement in the face of taxi strikes or to flee more serious unrest in that unlikely event. I then found an intriguing bed and breakfast outside the city in which DS2 and I would spend our final two nights in Spain.

As an aside, I never felt unsafe in Barcelona or the surrounding region. Except possibly while negotiating the narrow, winding exit from the airport parking garage in an SUV the size of a semi, but you can’t blame that on politics.

Catalunya: experiencing hearth & home

One of the ideas I’d entertained for making the trip to Spain a pleasure for both myself and my younger son was a cooking class.

barcelona-2017-b-and-b-wine-cooking-class-mom-with-kid-e1517158098792.jpg

We (helped Marta while she) made that paella!

Yes, it’s true, any regular reader knows that I’m not typically an enthusiastic cook.

That said, I am an enthusiastic student of what makes other people—and other cultures—tick, and it is hard to place a finger on the pulse of Catalunya without discussing food. These are people who love to eat, who know how food really ought to be, and who seem to enjoy sharing all of the same.

I’d entertained the notion of this class in Barcelona, but the timing wasn’t working out quite right. Plus, if I’m honest, I would rather visit a nice, dusty history museum any day, whereas my son was hoping to stay in the hotel watching his favorite cartoons in various languages.

What did pop up when I started researching lodgings outside the city of Barcelona, but within a radius of about one hour, were farm- and winery- based experiences.

Penedès, if I’m getting this right, is the heart of the grape growing region that produces some the world’s best sparkling wines, or cava, as it’s known locally. At least one person with whom I spoke implied that champagne is basically just a French knock off of Catalan cava!

I won’t take a position in the subjective argument of “best” or the historical question of “first,” but I can tell you that it is easy for a non- aficionado to learn about and experience great sparkling wines in Penedès, even with a child in tow.

Barcelona 2017 B and B Wine Cooking street sign

Signpost guides the way. Take the narrow dirt track to the right around the cluster of houses.

So I booked the B&B Wine & Cooking in El Pla del Penedès and hoped for the best. It had good reviews on Trip Advisor, but was mostly an unknown. I chose to use Hotels.com for booking, just in case any of it was less than legit, but, in the end, have nothing but good experiences to report from Penedès.

BandB WineandCooking Cava welcome - 1If I return, next time I will book directly with the B&B. When you do, they guarantee you the lowest room rate and give you a free bottle of cava as a welcome gift.

B&B Wine & Cooking, El Pla del Penedès

This bed and breakfast is family friendly. I’ll start there, because so many B&Bs in the USA are fussy establishments that seek to insulate their guests from such inconveniences as children and telecommunications. This is not that. Continue reading

“Of Human Bondage” and its trove of… parenting wisdom?

One reads the classics because

Actually, I won’t presume to know why anyone else reads a classic novel.*

Having long since passed the stage of life wherein, to quote the Indigo Girls song “Closer to Fine:”

…I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee
He never did marry or see a B-grade movie
He graded my performance, he said he could see through me
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind
Got my paper and I was free

Very much in spite of much of the bureaucratic process we call schooling, but with deep regard for the great investment of time and energy—of inestimable value!—into the bettering of my mind by more than my fair share of gifted teachers, I remain a student, if not a scholar, and a committed autodidact.

For this reason—and because I suffer from an oscillation between stultifying malaise and desperate, yearning agitation when I don’t have a good book at hand, preferably with a few more queued upI read and re-read the classics.

book novel Of Human Bondage coverLast month, I embarked upon the reading of W. Somerset Maugham‘s hefty tome, Of Human Bondage.

The wholly inadequate summary of the novel in the library catalogue says:

“The story of a deformed youth whose handicap causes loneliness.”

I would laugh if such a shallow skimming over of the depth of this story didn’t leave me wanting to sob. It’s almost a caricature of the isolation and lack of understanding that torments Phillip, Of Human Bondage‘s orphaned protagonist, during his youth.

With little interest in literary criticism, let me come directly to what moved me so deeply as I worked my way—slowly, because it deserved thorough attention—through this weighty novel:

Phillip needed a caregiver.

He really could have used a mother. He flailed because being orphaned left him to learn for himself what most of us are taught by even mediocre parents.

He was born with a less than stellar internal compass for interpreting the giving and receiving of any kind of love. He wasn’t what we might call today a “people person.” He was one of those kids who most need explicit help to interpret the social world, and take a full role within it.

Reading Of Human Bondage made the importance of the part I can play in my sons’ lives more unequivocal to me than ever before. I should be mature enough not to doubt it; I remain insecure enough that I do.

I’m grateful that I didn’t read Maugham’s masterpiece as a student.

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Barcelona 2017: One week family stay at Hotel Catalonia Ramblas

Attempting to wrangle every thought I’ve entertained about a week long trip to Europe would result in my posting about it after weeks if not months passed. Instead, I’ll try to focus rather narrowly on little slices of the journey. Knowing my propensity to go on and on and on, this might also keep my posts to a digestible length for the digital age.

Home away from home: Hotel Catalonia Ramblas

We didn’t choose our Barcelona hotel. It was selected by the organizers of the conference where my husband was speaking. Sometimes, these choices are a disappointment, but something to put up with graciously. After all, I’m tagging along at little to no cost for lodging in an expensive city.

Hotel Catalonia Ramblas was not one of those disappointments. We were incredibly comfortable there as a family of three.*

Barcelona Ramblas hotel bed - 1Often, location is the single biggest factor in how a hotel stacks up. Hotel Catalonia Ramblas is in a prime location just two blocks from the heart of Barcelona, the Plaça de Catalunya. Leading downhill toward the Mediterranean from the Plaça is the famous La Rambla pedestrian thoroughfare.

It’s hard to beat a hotel location this close to two of the must visit sites in a city.

This is also a major shopping district. The grande dame of Spanish department stores, El Corte Inglés, is an imposing presence across the street. Which street? With more than one location near the Plaça, you can take your pick of all clothing to the south or housewares and toys, etc., to the northeast.

You’ll find anything you might need within an easy walk of Hotel Catalonia Ramblas, including access to public transportation and the starting point for popular tours.

I saw internationally recognizable brands as well as shops with a Catalan flavor everywhere along the Carrer de Pelai, home of Hotel Catalonia Ramblas.

My bank has an agreement to waive fees with a group of other large, international financial institutions, and the ATM I needed to avoid paying fees was mere blocks away.

Location? Check!

Two’s company; three’s a crowd?

We had what I believe was a standard room (i.e, not a suite), albeit perhaps an oversized one since it included a sofa bed for our son at one end. I know there are suites with private pools(!) available in this hotel, but I didn’t investigate any other room types.

Refer to the first paragraph: I was in residence as a beggar, not a chooser.

Barcelona hotel entrance corridor - 1One entered our room from the public hallway into a short corridor with doors at both ends; the bathroom entrance opened from this corridor to one side.

Barcelona hotel bathroom glass door - 1The bathroom employed a frosted glass door, but the presence of the additional wooden door between the private hallway and the sleeping space meant no early morning light pollution when one family member rose early to go to work while his spouse and child lazed about for hours’ more sleep!

I dare you. Just ask my opinion of glass walls in double hotel rooms. These rooms are designed to be shared by more than one person who might have very different schedules. My thoughts aren’t positive.

Entering the bedroom from the hall, the closet separated the bathroom from the sleeping space. This no doubt added some sound insulation. I found it easy to sleep through DH’s early morning routine.

One section of the closet had shelves, including a pull out with electric kettle and instant coffee/tea things; the other two thirds offered standard hanging space. Three thick blankets and an extra pillow were at hand in the closet, proving themselves very useful as we experienced a rare run of freezing days during our week in Spain.

You might notice from my photos facing toward the closet that the pulls on the closet doors could serve as makeshift hooks; I kept our light and dark laundry bags there so my family knew where to put soiled clothes.

The main bed(s) were two oversized singles pushed together in the European fashion. I didn’t bring a tape measure, but I’d judge that each of these was closer to an American double/full size (54″ wide) than our twin (36“) beds.

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