My 18 Hours in Madrid: A Museum, Tapas, and a Protest

Driving into a European city always makes my heart race a little. When you’re used to Manhattan’s West-Side Highway and FDR Drive and the numerical grid system that gets you most places you want to go, the diagonal avenues and alley-way like streets of every European city of note, from Paris to Barcelona, are not only foreign, they’re frightening.

And there’s nothing worse than braving the traffic of a European city only to find the streets you need are closed off with major police activity.

the street to our hotel was completely barricaded, because not only did it lead to the Westin, it lead to the Ministry of the Interior.

Turning off the Paseo del Prado, Madrid’s main drag, onto Calle Mayor, the car came to a complete halt. We had noticed the long line of Mercedes Policzia vans lined up along the Paseo del Prado, but we weren’t expecting to hit a barricade. The last time we were in Madrid it was also October and military planes were flying overhead — they were rehearsing for military day. We assumed this might be something similar.

Indeed, they were preparing to show off their military might, but not for a celebration. An “Occupy” protest was planned for the evening and the hundreds of police milling about were readying the Plaza de las Cortes for thousands of dissatisfied Spaniards.

We were granted access to Calle Mayor and our hotel, but were warned that later we might not be so lucky.

Our hotel was located across the street from the Ministry of the Interior, which explained why the protestors had chosen the location. And explained the extra heavy police presence outside the doors.

Let me pause here and say that the Madrid police are very impressive.

Madrid Police wear their uniforms well.

They wear their uniforms well. They’re athletic. They carry guns on their thighs. Their hats give them a simultaneous air of authority and mystery. A Madrid policeman can come to my rescue any day.

We only had a short stay in Madrid and our plan was to go to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemaisza, my favorite museum in Europe, and then go for tapas at a restaurant around the corner that, 4 years ago, had the best fried anchovies. A little protest wasn’t going to get in our way.

The Museo Thyssen-Bornemaisza is one of my favorite places anywhere

Walking the block to the museum gave us a better idea of what the city officials were expecting: something serious.

A month earlier, a similar protest had turned violent and rubber bullets had been fired on protesters. Several were injured. Many went into custody. Perhaps the one consolation this time round was that many of the protestors would be police officers on their day off.

A herd of police dogs. Mounted police. The ever-growing numbers of armed officers. Flashing blue lights. It was hard not to be a little nervous, especially when staying so close to the center of activity.

Those dogs meant business

But when things get tough, the tough order tapas.

The Estado Puro is a tapas bar on the ground floor of the NH Paseo del Prado. On my last trip to Madrid, this was my daily snack stop. Since then, I’ve made my rounds at other note-worthy tapas bars in Madrid, New York, D.C., and then on this trip, Barcelona, and still concluded that the Estado Puro is as good as it gets.

Fried anchovies, cod fritters, and tempura asparagus. Sure it was all battered and cooked in hot oil, but it was delicious and a perfect pre-protest snack.

The other great advantage to the Estado Puro is that its long windows guarantee great people watching. There were hundreds of police milling the streets and yet the residents of Madrid, and even the handful of tourists about, were moving with no sense of concern.

Caught between wanting to play the part of amateur photojournalist and fearing rubber bullets (the hotel had said the protest was supposed to be “peaceful” but “could not guarantee” anything… comforting), I lingered on the street corner waiting for things to get interesting. But when a group of protestors began to gather at the edge of the Fuente de Neptuno, I decided it was time to hustle  indoors. We flashed our room keycard at a back street barricade and scurried down the street into our hotel, up to the third floor, shut the lights and began to watch as the march began.

First, only a handful of people began to lineup along the barricade. A few signs blew in the cold autumn air, but this group looked generally small and nonthreatening.

“They brought out all this force for that?” we thought, as the first half hour passed.

And then, the deluge.

The police stand at attention as the crowd fills the plaza

Thousands poured in, banging drums, playing instruments, carrying banners, chanting. It felt organized and surprisingly joyful, despite the clear anger and frustration in the crowd.

Spain’s unemployment rate is 25%. Jobs are disappearing at an alarming rate, and the numbers on welfare do little to help the country stabilize. Meanwhile, Catalan is carrying on a succession campaign. The unrest as understandable as it is widespread.

close-ups of the crowd

The crowd was a medley of age groups — it wasn’t just restless unemployed college students. They rattled the barricades, chanting in unison and waving their signs. All the while, the police stood at attention.

In all of the anger, there was a clear sense of camaraderie, which despite the growing tension was comforting. Would they “storm the barricades?” There was a violinist leading a small chamber group — chamber orchestras don’t storm barricades. Or do they?

Police cars began to proceed down the surrounding avenues, closing them off as points of entry for additional protestors. The blue lights pierced the nights. Police directed pedestrians away. Was it about to erupt?

No, violinists don’t storm barricades. At least not in Madrid, not this time. After about an hour and a half, the group began to clear. A few small pods gathered in circles to talk. But the excited And then the street cleaners descended.

I awoke shortly before the sun rose and looked out on the plaza, which glistened as if it had rained — all traces of the protest, from sidewalk chalk scrawled statements of unrest to the banners that had covered the barricades were all washed away.

As the sun began to peak over the buildings to the east, I began to make my way West, homeward-bound for New York.

And with that, the lights dim, and she takes her exit, leaving Spain and Europe behind her


Rumble in the City: Taking the Sport of Fencing to the Streets of NYC

I remember the first time the elevator doors opened onto the New York Fencers Club. I could hear the fencing before I could see it. The clangs and clacks of the blades, the thuds of people lunging, the John Cage-esque random boooop of the scoring machines — you could feel it; it was electric.

This past June, while the FIFA World Cup was raging in South Africa, another World Cup was underway here in New York. Olympic medalists. National Champions. Champions in the making. Yes, the best and brightest fencers in the world converged on the Brooklyn Marriott, only a short subway hop away from downtown Manhattan, and you missed it. An opportunity to see Olympians in action and fulfill your inner-child’s Star Wars/Robin Hood/Three Musketeers fantasies, and you missed it.

Fencing Masters NYC comes to the Hammerstein Ballroom Stage on Nov. 17

But have no fear, fencing is back for the New York public in a BIG way. The Olympians are coming, and  they’re doing it up for you in style.

On November 17, 2010, the Hammerstein Ballroom will be home to a landmark fencing event. Featuring the living-legends of the sport, Fencing Masters NYC is a celebration of fencing’s history, honor, and athleticism. Olympic champions from around the world will square off against members of Team USA in a quest for the title of Fencing Masters Champion. The event will include dinner, cocktails, an interactive expo, and special performances. The producers of Fencing Masters NYC have pulled out all the stops to make this an elegant, high-quality, memorable event. It will be a night of top-caliber fencing, special tributes, and above all, fun and excitement!

Spearheaded by members of the fencing community, Fencing Masters NYC is an important and much needed event for the sport. For too long, fencing has stood on the margins of professional-caliber athletics. Those who have taken up an epee, foil, or sabre already know what a dynamic and engaging sport fencing is, and the aim of Fencing Masters NYC is to broadcast these qualities to the public on a national scale. Indeed, Fencing Masters NYC has single-handedly changed the way the media looks at the sport! For the first time since 1980, fencing will be televised outside the Olympics. The event will be syndicated to 14.5 million homes in the tri-state area thanks to a partnership with SNY, television home of the NY Mets.

Fencing Masters NYC is first and foremost a vehicle for garnering financial and moral support for 2012 Olympic hopefuls. Fencing, while amateur in the United States, is a professional sport. American athletes striving for London 2012 pursue full-time training schedules and drop thousands of dollars annually on travel and related expenses. Despite historic medal wins in 2004 and 2008, fencers still lack major corporate sponsorship to support their Olympic dreams.  As a not-for-profit organization, proceeds from the Fencing Masters NYC Hammerstein event will go to sponsored fencers on Team USA.

Interested in joining us? You should! Check out the Fencing Masters NYC website for a complete roster of competitors and ticket information.

Click here: Fencing Masters NYC

No, I Wasn’t Drunk When I Bought That… I Was Just on Vacation.

My parents bought a set like this home from South Africa

I was reaching for my grandmother’s ancient but effective hedge trimmers when all of a sudden a crash, a clatter, and a bang left a gaping gash in my big toe. I scolded myself for not changing out of my flip-flops and into my hiking boots, as was the norm for my gardening days. Any one of a number of standard home-care tools could have caused the puddle of blood to form on my garage floor, but to my surprise it wasn’t one of the 4 axes or 8 saws formerly hanging on the wall (is there an army of lumberjacks living in my basement that I don’t know about?). No, the culprit was far less expected — it was a spear.

I hobbled out of the garage waving the spear over head like some crazed primal warrior. Where the hell did this come from, I shouted to my mother who was nursing a wound of her own — she had just lost a vicious fight with a rose bush.

“Oh! I didn’t know it survived!” She cried joyfully, grabbing it from me. “It’s a Zulu spear! I bought it back from South Africa when I visited your father’s family for the first time. There was a shield and knob-carry too, but the shield shed… er, it was made from cow.”

Camilo, Che, & Fidel -- Cuba's revolutionaries... now in technicolor on my dining room wall.

Apparently, 40 years ago a Zulu spear and shield could be carry-on and didn’t raise an eyebrow at customs. Man, have times changed.

Oh! the things you’ll purchase to remember your travels by!

Those flip-flop cocktail coasters I bought in South Beach were such a good idea at the time.

Have you ever heard of a zither? Until one weekend at Lake George, NY, I hadn’t either. Now there’s one sitting next to my fireplace gathering dust.  It’s a musical instrument, by the way. Kind of like a guitar in that it has strings and you strum it. It’s common in Austria and Hungry, so I don’t know why there was one at an antique shop in Bolton’s Landing. Why did I buy it? Because someone told me that when you’re in “upstate” vacation towns, you’re supposed to go antiquing.

When I went to Cuba 2 years ago, there was a lot of stuff I wanted to buy as souvenirs. Even though I was in the country legally, the US Treasury letter granting me permission to travel in Cuba forbade me from spending any money on the island. Silly embargo. Of course, I did acquire a trinket or two (errr… or dozen). There’s a photo of Fidel Castro playing baseball next to my computer, a giant framed silk-screen poster of revolutionary Camil0 Cienfuegos on my dining room wall, and about 8 more silkscreen posters in a closet upstairs awaiting frames.

I’m not a communist. I just have a thing for brightly-colored novelties, particularly of the artistic kind.

everyone needs a set of foam moose antlers... I have 2.

Unpacking after my Newfoundland adventure I realized that my suitcase had gained several pounds in mementos. The “This Rock Rocks” t-shirt was a must have, as where the other tourist-targeted tees and shot-glasses that sneaked into my Delsey. The Alexander Keith’s green foam moose antlers I picked up at the George Street Festival were trivial in comparison to the collection of rocks I had amassed while hiking. Did you know the Tablelands of Gros Morne National Park are really Earth’s mantle exposed? Yea, you bet I threw an 8lb piece of that in my backpack.

I think, though, of all the things I bought back with me from Newfoundland there’s only one thing that’s thoroughly useless — the bottle of Cross & Blackwell’s Fish and Chips Vinegar.

In Newfoundland, if you wanted fish you had to get fish and chips —  I could argue it was a sensible purchase at the time. Then again, as my father reminded me at checkout, restaurants usually carry their own supply of malt vinegar. As for home use? While I’ve broiled, baked, poached, grilled, and sauteed many a fish in my time, I’ve never battered and fried a fillet… nor do I plan to. In fact, come to think of it, before Newfoundland, it had been 5 years since I even ate fish and chips.

Considering I’m not going to carry a 24 ounce bottle of vinegar in my purse on the off-chance I find myself at a fish and chip joint in Manhattan, what am I going to do with it?

Homemade malt-vinaigrette, anyone?

I guess it’s a good thing they talked me down from the puffin chair…

I think this would have looked stellar on my front porch

Newfoundland Stories from August 5

Channel-Port aux Basques is nicknamed the “Entry” city. It’s here most people grab the ferry to the mainland or drive through as they exit the docked ship. It’s a colorful little port that is celebrating Come Home Year this week with colorful flags and concerts…

along the Port aux Basques Harbour

the locals waiting for the concert to start

Port aux Basques is a stay-one-night-leave-the-next- morning kind of village. The Trans Canada Highway starts and ends at its  ferry terminal, stretching only north west towards the northern peninsula before turning east towards St. John’s, where it begins and ends again. Most visitors to the island don’t realize there are signs of life east of Port aux Basques. We arrived early at the St. Christopher, giving us a good half day to fill with something. It was suggested that we take Route-470, head east 40km and explore the town of Rose Blanche and its lighthouse.

Having visited the lighthouses atop the gusty Lobster Head Cove and the far-easterly point of Cape Spear, we didn’t have very high expectations. Yet, as we drove along the twisting road, through undulating hills coated in a fuzzy green shrub and speckled with marbled granite boulders, we decided this might be one of the most stunning places on the island.

Rose Blanche was a lovely spot and its reconstructed, historical granite lighthouse a more than worthwhile excursion…

a view onto the Rose Blanche Lighthouse, an amazing setting

a cluster of homes in Rose Blanche

Appropriately, we found our final dinner at the Friendly Fisherman Cafe, a small family-run place overlooking the fishing boats at Rose Blanche. Fish and Chips and fishcakes. yum, yum yum.

my "healthier" fishcakes, made from bacaloa. note the frozen veggies

a final plate of Fish and chips for the father

The fog thundered in as we began the drive back to our hotel in Port aux Basques. The wind picked up and the rain clashed against the windshield. Our ferry was due to pull out of the dock at 8:30AM, Newfoundland time. Check-in was at 6:30, and so with lots of cod in our bellies, and warm memories playing through our minds, we trundled off to bed early, not in any hurry to leave the island that had taken hold of our hearts.

We may have said good-bye to Newfoundland, but there still lay 1,600 miles of road between the ferry terminal in Nova Scotia and our driveway. There was still some vacation left…

Newfoundland Stories of August 4

Photo of Canadian Junior National Hockey Team hopefuls, courtesy of "The Telegram," St. John's newspaper

As the Sheraton elevator hauled my half asleep butt up to the 6th floor for breakfast, I noticed I was surrounded by a pod of 6-foot tall, middle-aged men all wearing black Under Armour polos with red maple leafs over their left pectoral. My, how patriotic, I thought. After rubbing the previous night’s George Street Festival mascara out of my eyes, I noticed the silhouette of a hockey player set against the bright red of the leaf. They looked official. As I turned from the elevators and made my way down the hall, 4 tall, Abercrombie and Fitch-esque, barely-legal aged young men chirped well-synchronized hellos in my uncaffeinated, still bed-headed direction. I may not have been awake enough to use a hair brush, but I was awake enough to know a good-looking guy when I saw one. I confess, I did a double take, watched them until they turned the corner, and in the process, walked smack into wall.

Later, I found out the Canadian Junior National Men’s Hockey Team was in town for a training/development/selection camp and were using our hotel as home base. Every guy staying at the hotel wanted to know where the boys were playing. Every woman wanted to know how if the players were of legal age yet…

The first Wednesday of August is the famous Royal St. John’s Regatta — the longest running sports contest on the continent. Fixed-seat, coxswained skulls of 6 or more rowers hit Quidi Vidi lake at 9AM and race all day until 9PM. In the morning, the officials check the weather. If it’s a good day, the Regatta is a Go and the city of St. John’s shuts down — Regatta day is a civic holiday with a rain-date.

Sunny with scattered clouds, the 4th was a perfect day to watch a boat race, but we opted out of a day a local said “means sunburn and bratty kids with cotton candy” and headed for Springdale — a midway stop between the capital on the east and the entry/exit town of Port aux Basques, where our ferry to Nova Scotia was scheduled to depart on Friday morning. Springdale boasted a 4.5-star luxury establishment called the Riverwood Inn and it seemed like the ideal place to begin the end of our vacation. The Inn’s website displayed pictures of beaches and boat tours, gourmet picnic baskets and luscious views of an expansive river and picturesque harbour. The photographer for the Riverwood Inn’s restaurant deserved an award for spin-master of the year.

The river was a creek. There were no kayaks or boat tours. There was no restaurant in the hotel to make our picnic basket. The whole surrounding area was under development, with construction workers tromping through the inn’s small yard. The “beautiful village of Springdale” was several miles away. The Inn was located a quarter mile from lumber yards and gravel pits. The nearest restaurant was at a dingy-looking motel next to one of the aforementioned gravel pits.

We didn’t stay at the Riverwood Inn.

Nor did we stay at the Marble Inn “Resort” two hours down the Trans Canada Highway.

My mum and I travel often together, and whenever I call home, the first question my father asks is not “how are you,” but rather “Has your mother changed rooms yet?” It’s a running joke in the family. Well not only did we change rooms twice today, we changed hotels… not once, not twice, but 3 times.

The three Recklings finally found ourselves in Corner Brook at a less-than-the-Holiday-Inn motel named the Mamateek Inn. Outside the door, some bikers were passing a joint and a heard of ATVs grumbled and bounced into the parking lot. The motel was nondescript, but the guests had character.

The door keys didn’t work. Then when we did get working keys, the door was wedged closed and required excessive quantities of shoulder-shoving to get it open.

We may have just checked in to the worst hotel on our Newfoundland vacation, but we were about to have the best dinner since leaving home.

The Bay of Islands Bistro is a small house restaurant that prides itself on using local organic ingredients (apparently, they DO grow lettuce in Newfoundland). Fresh, clean, and delicious, everything on the menu was something I wanted to order. We were thankful for the lobster cakes and the smoked spare ribs, grateful for a piece of fish that wasn’t fried. Don’t get me wrong, the fish and chips have been well-worth the calories, but after a long day of driving, mishaps, and shanty-shacks, the gourmet finish to the day was much deserved.

Newfoundland Stories of the Day (Aug. 2)

It’s whale-watching season on the east coast of Newfoundland. Humpbacks have been spotted from Twillingate down to Trepassey Bay, and while we don’t usually have much luck when we go whale watching (a 4 hour hunt on the Saint Lawerence several years ago turned up not a single dorsal fin), we thought we’d try our luck on the Atlantic. Shipping out at 10:30Am aboard the Gatherall’s catamaran and headed into open waters to search for whales. Man, did we luck out…

a humpback whale breeches and gives us a show

a whale's tail

The tour took us to Witless Ecological Reserve where we also saw 100,000-some birds, mostly puffins. Gatherall’s, like many of the other touring companies, launches from Bay Bulls. A few miles north is the fishing village of Petty Harbour…

Petty's Cove

a fisherman fillets a freshly caught cod.

Petty Harbour is a neat stopping point on the way to Cape Spear — the eastern most spot on North America. Here the winds can pick up so high that children have been lifted out of their parents’ arms. Today, we spotted whales off the Cape and watched the fog roll in off the Atlantic as we climbed the stairs to the lighthouse…

the family stands at the eastern most point of North America

the lighthouse overlooks the Atlantic... can you see Greenland just over there?

We ended the night at Shamrock City Pub, where we listened to a couple of live sets, including Anthony MacDonald. I now know all the words to “The Islander” — I guess that makes me a Newfoundlander now.

performers at Shamrock City

Newfoundland Stories of the Day (Aug. 1)

We decided to set aside our first day in St. John’s for exploring the city itself. The clouds Environment Canada had predicted hung over the Narrows, threatening Signal Hill. We hurried to get dressed, hoping to hit the center of town before the weather turned against us. But before we could tie our shoelaces, the fog rolled in, bringing with it a persistent mist that kept the day cool and my camera cloudy.

Though it wasn’t the best day for walking around, we still made the most of it, beginning with a visit to The Rooms. Part archive, part history museum, part art gallery, The Rooms overlook the city and offer tourists and residents alike a view into St. John’s cultural past, present, and future. Currently on exhibit is a stunning show of Ed Burtynsky’s photos of the oil industry…

a view onto The Rooms

the view from The Rooms

The next essential destination was Signal Hill, a National Historic Site and important military outpost in the 18th century (not the band). The fog was thick, but it added a certain mysterious romanticism to the sweeping view of the harbour and Atlantic…

fog over Cabot Tower on Signal Hill

a couple stops to take in the view of the Narrows

To some, it might have been a crummy day for Signal Hill, but to my family and one particular bride, it was still pretty awesome...

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