I Saw a Church Inside a Mosque in Spain (Part III)

Past, present, and reality more fantastic than fiction meet in Seville.

Part I.

Part II.

We had landed on Naboo.

Plaza de España, the famous set of “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones,” is a magnificent square built in 1928 in Maria Luisa Park.

Seeking to boost morale after the loss of its colonies in the late 19th century, Spain commissioned the square for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929. 

Located to the south of the city center, Maria Luisa Park is a half-mile oasis of exotic Mediterranean trees and flowers beautifully designed by French landscape architect Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier.

The park’s shaded promenade, ideal for a horse-drawn carriage paseo, leads to the Art Deco plaza by Spanish architect Aníbal Gonzalez (with idyllic canals for romantic boat rides and pavilions used as museums and government offices).

Tiled booths representing each of the provinces of Spain surround the square. These “Instagrammable” backdrops
are popular with visitors looking to pose beside beloved Spanish regions. My favorite was Barcelona.

As we left behind the magic square and re-entered Maria Luisa Park, flamenco street performers hypnotized us as we continued to the General Archive of the Indies.

A little bit of history: Back in the late 1500s, merchants of Seville would use parts of the Cathedral as an office. That’s when Phillip II commissioned the ancient merchants’ exchange, which would house the General Archive of the Indies a couple of centuries later by decree of Charles III. 

For the extreme value of the documents it holds, recording the history of the Spanish empire in Asia and Latin America, the building itself seems modest. But don’t get fooled by the discreet two-story structure.

Among the precious papers is the journal of Christopher Columbus, along with other essential letters and documents signed by the Conquistadores. The archives also hold “Don Quixote” author Miguel de Cervantes’ request for a job in the New World. He would send King Phillip II the message after being infamously injured at the Battle of Lepanto.

Pope Alexander VI’s Bull of Demarcation is the most consequential document, which effectively divided the Latin American continent between the Portuguese and the Spanish crowns.

I stood in front of this ancient contract for a long time in a trance. I thought about the profound implications that the stroke of ink inflicted on millions of people across a vast geographical region, spanning more than five centuries.

I thought about the 21st-century indigenous women and children begging for money outside of fancy restaurants in Medellin.

I needed a beer.

I didn’t mind chugging one right before visiting the Gothic-style Seville Cathedral.

The world’s fourth-largest church has witnessed significant events in its five centuries of existence: supplanting Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia as the largest cathedral in the world and serving as the site of the baptism of Juan of Aragon, son of the Ferdinand II and Isabella I. It is also the final resting place of Christopher Columbus. But my favorite part is the majestic view from its bell tower.

A visit to “Al-Andalus” would be incomplete without seeing the Alcázar, the royal palace product of caliph Abd al-Rahman III’s revolt against Córdoba.

Unlike Granada’s Alhambra, the Christian conquest destroyed the original Alcázar in the mid-1200s.

In its place, King Peter of Castile built today’s palace. Despite the conflicts, the Alcázar remains a prime example of the Mudéjar style in the region, combining Renaissance and Gothic elements.

One of the most groundbreaking learnings of this trip is that in the roughly 700 years in which the Moors occupied Iberia, there were periods of peace among Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

The little-publicized fact may explain the aesthetically-diverse aspect of this region and serve as a testament to the coexisting of different cultures as vital to leaving a rich legacy.

I Saw a Church Inside a Mosque in Spain (Part II)

And it’s not even the craziest thing you’ll see in Andalusia.

Part I.

I felt like I was in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Candyland.

We’d just entered the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, and its many white and red striped arches made me think about the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Until I saw Jesus hanging from the cross, which reminded me the building was converted into a Cathedral in 1236. To this day, it’s a functioning church, and it’s not rare to run into devout congregations lighting candles in several of its many naves.

The Great Mosque’s sheer size it’s impressive by itself: 590 by 425 feet, including El Patio de Los Naranjos. That’s a little less than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

It makes sense: at its heyday as the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba, the city became a world-leading cultural and educational center and one of the largest European metropolis.

Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba

The “church inside a mosque inside a church” metaphor stems from disputed chronicles about how Abd ar-Rahman I, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty, initially purchased half of the Visigothic church of San Vicente, which site presumably dates from the days of the Roman Empire.

Subsequent expansions would make the building the greatest of the Western-Islamic World, including the minaret. The Reconquista turned it into a bell tower before inserting a Renaissance cathedral into the building.

The iconic Patio de Los Naranjos, dominated by the Bell Tower and lined with beautiful cypresses and orange trees, functions as the main entrance (here’s where the box office is). It was the site of ritual purification before prayer. 

At 177 feet, the minaret-turned-tower stands as the city’s tallest building. No visit to the Mosque-Cathedral is complete without climbing the campanario, which has the city’s best views.

Bell tower of the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba

Visiting the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba was life-changing. It was the first time I thought about taking one of those tests to determine if my childhood friend Ahmad and I shared any common ancestry. We grew up believing we were completely different on account of our families’ religions.

It was also the first time I thought about travel as a transcendental experience. One that goes beyond physically moving from place “A” to place “B.” Years later, I’d read a quote from the great American author John Steinbeck in his book “Travels with Charley” that put things in perspective:

A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.

John Steinbeck

Both Alhambra and the Great Mosque had shaken me to the core, and it was only the middle of our trip, as we would be moving from Córdoba to Seville. “Hard to top this,” I thought.

I was wrong.

We moved 86 miles southeast to the largest city (and the capital) of the autonomous community of Andalusia, the site of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Alcázar, Cathedral, and the General Archive of the Indies. And repository of modern icons like Alamillo Bridge, Puente de la Banqueta and Metropol Parasol

After surveying the charming old town and trying some of the most delicious jamón serrano you would ever find, we headed to La Casa de Pilatos (Pilate’s House).

The Italian Renaissance/Múdejar-style Andalusian palace, holds beautiful gardens and one of the largest azulejo (tiles) collections in the world. 

Construction began around 1483 by Don Pedro Enríquez Quiñones, then the noble Mayor of Andalusia, and lasted until at least 1519, when Pedro’s son Fadrique’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land inspired the biblical name.

Aside from the building itself, the spectacular garden, and azulejos, the house contains various busts of Spanish kings and Roman emperors and major paintings and frescoes by iconic artists like Francisco Goya.

San Bartolomé neighborhood, the site of the old Judería, the San Roque brotherhood, formed in 1901, and one of the iconic stops of the Resurrection Sunday procession and Barrio de Santa Cruz are some more sights worth checking.

Although we’re not bullfighting supporters, we didn’t want to end our first day in Seville without checking out The Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla (and I want to clarify something here). 

It is possible to disagree with and respect a place’s cultural practices. Like whaling in the Faroe Islands, which I and many others may consider animal cruelty, it is not my place to judge or dictate to a culture different than mine how to conduct their millennial business.

On the same token, I respect those who prefer not to sponsor said places with their tourist dollars be.

We visited when there weren’t any active corridas de toros (bullfights). We limited ourselves to admiring the Baroque façade, which dates from 1762, with a central entrance, Puerta del Príncipe (the Prince’s Gate), with gorgeous 16th-century iron gates.

There’s a museum with mounted bull’s heads and posters, Matador costumes and other vintage memorabilia from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. And, despite the bright day out in the ring, the tour had a solemn mood as we saw the chapel, dedicated to the Virgen de Caridad, where Matadors pray right before facing the beast.

So much food for thought, and we hadn’t even visited the Royal Alcázar of Seville or The Plaza de España (a famous “Star Wars” film location) yet.

And—the most mind-blowing of all—the General Archive of the Indies, which contains, among other crucial documents, Pope Alexander VI’s Bull of Demarcation that divided Latin America between Spain and Portugal.

Part III

I Saw a Church Inside a Mosque in Spain (Part I)

And they did not teach me that in school.

When I was a kid in 1980s Caracas, my friend Ahmad and I had this game.

We’d sit outside his dad’s leather shop and collect words that sounded similar in Arabic and Spanish.

“Al-sukkar – azúcar (sugar), Tassah – Taza (cup), Naranj – Naranja (orange),” and so on.

We never wondered why. Etymology wasn’t a huge interest of a pair of 12 years olds who quickly forgot all about the word games as soon as our moms allowed us to hit the Intellivision.

Fast forward 30 years and my first trip to the South of Spain would provide all the answers.

El Albaicín, Granada

We descended on Granada on Easter Week and hit the ground running by strolling about town, admiring the ubiquitous orange trees that line the city and popping in La Charcuteria to grab an emparedado de jamón.

I instantly fell in love with everything: the medieval neighborhood of the Albaicín, Sacromonte (Gypsy Quarter), Realejo (Jewish Quarter), the procession to Iglesia de Santo Domingo and the gorgeous Mirador de San Juan.

This explosion of colors, flavors, and sounds gave me an idea of how multicultural this part of the world is. But things really sank in the next day.

Patio de los Arrayanes, Alhambra, Granada

We had morning tickets to The Alhambra, the former royal residence and court of the Nasrid Kingdom, and then Ferdinand and Isabella. And it was here where I learned everything they didn’t teach me in school.

Long story short: The Moors occupied Iberia for around 700 years until the Christian Kingdoms re-conquered the peninsula and ushered in a period of expansion for the Spanish Empire inaugurated by Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of what is today Latin America.

That’s why those Spanish words sound similar to the Arabic ones. They derive from them. My history teacher had omitted the part of the movie before 1492.

But back to Alhambra.

One of Spain’s major tourist attractions and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Alhambra (the Red One), is also one of the most famous and best-preserved examples of Islamic architecture sprinkled with elements of the Spanish Renaissance.

Nasrid Palaces, Alhambra, Granada

And, like the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba and the Alcázar de Sevilla, which we would see later in the same tour, shows superpositions of architectural styles reflective of the struggle inside and outside its walls.

When someone asked one of the guides why wouldn’t they simply demolish the conquered palace and build the corresponding one for the victorious religion instead, the answer was that immortalizing the humiliation was the point.

That’s how you end up with a Renaissance-style castle in the middle of an Islamic palace.

Selfie at Palace of Charles V, Alhambra, Granada

You should spend an entire day at Alhambra admiring Generalife (the court’s summer palace), Nasrid Palaces, Patio de Los Arrayanes, Patio de Los Leones, and Mirador de San Nicolas.

Granada had blown my mind, and that was just the beginning.

We drove 129 miles from Granada to Córdoba and arrived in the Roman-settlement-turned-Caliphate-turned-Christian Crown on a pristine spring night.

The following day, we immediately knew why the producers of “Game of Thrones” had chosen it as one of their locations.

Roman bridge of Córdoba

Initially built in the early 1st century BC, the Roman bridge of Córdoba right in the middle of the city’s historic center welcomed us and led us to the famous Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba via the Reinassance gate Puerta del Puente.

Since our tickets to the Mosque-Cathedral weren’t until the next day, we briefly admired it from the outside before heading northeast to the Judería de Córdoba (Jewish Quarter).

Here, where Jews lived from the 10th to the 15th centuries, the intricate medieval layout from when it was separated from the rest of the city by a wall remained almost intact.

The Sinagoga (Synagogue) exhibited traces of the exact superimposition of cultural and religious symbols we first encountered in Granada. That was going to become more prevalent as we explored further.

Córdoba Synagogue

Next to the Jewish Quarter, we found the “Patios Cordobeces” (Córdoba Courtyards), a quaint district with a world-famous tradition.

Although the patios are on display all year round, the locals compete by opening up their courtyards and showing off beautiful pots with flower arrangements that hang from the walls or rest on the cobbled pavement every May.

In 2012, these patios became Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as they’re a vital part of the identity and pride of cordobeces

As the tradition has gained popularity through the decades, the exhibitions have included antique furniture, vintage kitchen utensils and other decorative arts. 

It’s not hard to believe that the “Patios Cordobeces” are among, if not the most beautiful in all of Spain.

They are also a unifying aspect of Spanish culture and a welcoming environment for locals and visitors of all backgrounds in a region whose history has shown profound divisions.

Protect the patios at all costs.

Patios Cordobeces

There were not many fancy restaurants on this trip. Not to say we didn’t enjoy world-class food. 

On every corner, charcuteries and tapas establishments had the best delicatessen this part of the world could offer. 

The best part: you could grab, go and keep enjoying what I’m sure is one of the places with more iconic UNESCO sites per square foot.

All leading up to the main attraction: the mosque inside the church. Or is it the other way around?

Part II.

Part III.

I Didn’t Bring my “PJs” to Aspen

Aspen will make you feel poor. Then its priceless landscapes will make you believe you are the wealthiest person walking on the face of Earth.

America never looked more beautiful.

The flight from Phoenix to Aspen is an hour and a half spectacle of SIMM-like arid landscapes, dramatically beautiful mountain ranges and majestic rivers.

All perfectly enhanced by crisp and sunny winter skies.

We were still processing the first post-COVID family holiday we had just spent in the Bay Area when the Colorado River greeted us.

The Colorado River

Next, the real-life map turned snowy as the landscape’s elevation increased, and the Aspen trees appeared as though you could reach out and touch them.

As we overflew the town of Aspen, we saw the last windmills and solar panels of a journey that had taken us from the California skies through Arizona and now the Colorado ones.

“Who knew the US was that much into renewable energy,” I thought with pride.

As visibility was good, and our United Airlines pilot was highly skilled, the much-expected landing at Aspen/Pitkin County Airport (one of America’s “most extreme” with its 7815 feet above sea level) was nice and smooth.

It was my first time in town, and my first impression was feeling increasingly poor as we deplaned, claimed our luggage and picked up our rental car.

Here, “PJs” didn’t mean pajamas but private jets.

But whatever feeling of inadequacy at the terminal quickly dissipated when we hit the road and saw one of the world’s most spectacular landscapes.

“Priceless! I can only imagine what it is like in the summer,” I said.

Breathtaking Aspen

We stayed with good friends, which was a welcome change from hotels and AirBnBs and prolonged the theme of familial hospitality that we began during the Christmas holiday.

Besides, their place is fabulous.

I’m not an expert skier (not even an intermediate one), but the main point of the trip was for my partner (a much better skier) and our friends (excellent ones) to hit the slopes.

My goal was to make it to “apres-ski” in one piece.

That usually happened after the children tired of watching me fall in my butt all day at Buttermilk, the easiest ski mountain in the region. 

My partner and friends glided with the big boys and girls at Aspen and Snowmass

A caveat: Buttermilk hosts the famous X Games, which were going to take place in two weeks. So, at least, it was cool to say, “I was just there,” while watching from the comfort of my warm home back in New York City. 

Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Creek Valley from the top of Buttermilk

Although I only experienced one mountain, I branched out about the after ski activities.

Aspen Pie Shop was a young and casual place to get excellent pizza and beer. Plus the dining room has a lovely view of the doggie park with the gorgeous Aspen mountain in the background.

There’s something about puppies romping happily in the snow.

The second establishment, The Wine Bar (formerly Chair 9) at The Little Nell was more upscale. The wine list and gourmet snacks were excellent. I particularly enjoyed the fondue, oysters and wagyu beef sliders (we ordered two portions).

Aspen Mountain

The Aspen Art Museum was temporarily closed, an excuse to come back in the Summer. Perhaps during the FOOD & WINE Classic or one of the Aspen Institute events.

Two more culinary experiences you should try: Betula Aspen was a delightful “French Pan-American” dinner. I loved the Ceviche “Bonito” and the Peruvian Lomo Saltado. 

For Sunday brunch, we tried Element 47. Also part of The Little Nell, this posh-chic place serves delicious gourmet food and has a good wine program.

I had the duck ramen, which tasted even better as the powdery snow fell outside, but I was told the element 47 wagyu burger was also delicious.

Eagle County Regional Airport

It was time to come back to reality.

We drove 65 miles to Gypsum, where the Eagle County Regional Airport sits, and from where United Airlines operates a non-stop flight to New York La Guardia.

The ruggedly beautiful Colorado mountains that streamed on our windshield for an hour and a half lend themselves to reflection.

On the radio, a single mother shared tips on making ends meet during a global pandemic.

You Can Have Charleston

Stunning architecture, world-class gastronomy and a complicated past: I’m glad I checked the South Carolinian capital off my bucket list.

I don’t know how they do it.

Charleston is immaculately clean despite the number of horses drawing pretty carriages all over the city at all times.

As a history geek and gastronomy lover, I was excited to check out the South Carolinian capital.

And “Chucktown” didn’t disappoint.

For starters, the namesake town of King Charles II treasures its past.

Which is delightful to a Northerner horrified by New York City’s eagerness to destroy icons and give way to sterile monuments to gentrification.

Like London, Charleston memorializes virtually every other corner with markers telling visitors about its rich history.

City Carriage Tours are one of the best ways to learn about the charming Southern town’s history

The examples are abundant. Not only in obviously historical places, like The Battery and The City Market.

But also in restaurants or hotels, former dwellings of legendary figures.

Like Zero Hotel and Restaurant on George Street, former home of Captain George Anson (1697-1762), commander of the H.M.S. Scarborough and defender of Charleston Harbor.

And speaking of traditions, we arrived in time for Saint Patrick’s Day.

Upon checking out the charming parade, we were also determined to experience the many food recommendations our friends had made.

First stop: 167 Raw Oyster Bar.

Let me tell you something about this place.

Just about anywhere in Charleston you will get an outstanding meal.

From Market Street Deli’s killer Classic Club Sandwich to the more upscale Charleston Grill (best wine list in town) and everything in between.

But, if you had to go to just one place, make sure it’s Raw Oyster Bar, and be ready to get blown away by the freshest oysters, spectacular ceviche, and a lobster roll that makes the Maine ones run for their money.

Located on King Street, 167 Raw doesn’t take reservations, though.

Your best bet is to put your name down on the list and go on a stroll.

Or, as we did, have a glass of wine at Bin 152 down the street, which has a pretty decent program. 

Rest assured that in an hour or so, depending on how busy they are, the maître d’ will text you via Resy. 

Not to be confused with the Old Slave Market, Charleston’s City Market is one of the most iconic sights

City Carriage Tours or pedicabs are an excellent way to get around.

But you can walk or even bike if you feel like burning the extra calories from all those delicious meals.

Head to The Battery, the iconic seawall and promenade along the Charleston peninsula, to admire the gorgeous homes surrounding White Point Garden.

Continue north on East Bay Street through the South of Broad neighborhood, and you’ll eventually run into the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon.

The former prisoner of war facility operated by British forces during the American Revolutionary War is now a museum run by the Daughters of the American Revolution no less.

Next, you’ll find the Old Slave Mart Museum almost around the corner on Chalmers Street.

Built in 1859, it once housed a slave auction gallery. And it’s a vivid reminder with plenty of painful details about the antebellum era.

Old Slave Mart Museum

Tough to experience, it also contains this uplifting quote:

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again

Maya Angelou

The Charleston Museum, in the Wraggborough neighborhood, is also worth a visit. 

It collects historical artifacts, natural history, and decorative arts.

It also contains a replica of the CSS Hunley, the submarine of the Confederate States of America used in the Civil War. 

So much history opened up our appetite again. And, this time, Butcher & Bee was the answer.

Located in Morrison Drive, a 25-minute drive from the town’s historical center, the popular spot resembles a Los Angeles brunch joint, and it’s known for its burgers and artisanal beers.

We also had to throw in some nightlife for good measure

Luckily, Dudley’s at Ann Street was happy to oblige with a good old Southern drag show, Saint Patrick’s Weekend Edition.

The revue included one of the divas performing to Cranberries “Zombie,” which the whole bar sang along. It was refreshing.

Fort Sumter, where the first shots that started the Civil War were fired

We couldn’t leave Charleston without visiting Fort Sumter.

The tour, via ferry, departs from either Downtown Charleston or Mount Pleasant. It costs $32 for adults, and it lasts 2+ hours. 

Highlights include the original canons, brick fortifications, and Union and Confederate flags.

On the ride back, we had the following exchange:

Fort Sumter Ferry Boy: “How did y’all like the tour?”

Us: “Very interesting. Tons of history!”

Him: “They changed some things a little.” (shows us what he says is a 2013 iPhone photo of flags, including the Confederate one, flying on the fort) 

Us: “How come?”

Him: (shrugs) “Things change, I guess. I don’t necessarily agree with it if you ask me.”

Us: (Google “Fort Sumter flags”)

USA Today, June 2015: “South Carolina lawmakers have been asked to decide the future of the Confederate flag flying at the Statehouse after nine people attending Bible study were shot and killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17. Alleged shooter Dylann Roof posted Confederate-inspired messages on social media.”

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church

The following day on our way to the airport, we stopped at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church to pay our respects and think about the future of our country.

How I Got Out of My London Comfort Zone

I don’t know why it took so long to book one of those London Day Trips, but I’m glad I finally did.

London became my second home in 2016 when my better half had to relocate for work, and I decided to stay back in New York City because of “career-building.”

You know, that thing we used to do before COVID.

As if taking the relationship long-distance wasn’t stressful enough, this was happening during the Brexit years and the advent of Donald Trump in politics.

So my first cultural lesson in “Britishness” was internalizing that ubiquitous WW2 motto: “Keep calm and carry on.”

In one of my first trips to London in the summer of 2016

That period turned out to be a blessing in disguise because the consecutive long-weekend trips across the pond ignited a passion for discovering and eventually travel blogging.

I’d drag my bag to work every Thursday of every long weekend. In the afternoon, I would head to JFK or Newark to fly to the other side of the ocean, only to return home that Monday.

Talk about jet lag on top of an emotional roller coaster.

I’d explored famous sights near the neighborhoods we’d stayed at: Marylebone, Notting Hill, Fitzrovia.

I was so afraid to get lost because of how new and intimidating everything seemed, especially Londoners’ custom of driving and walking on the left side of the road.

Regent Street between Oxford and Piccadilly Circus: one of Central London’s most iconic spots

And, unlike most of Manhattan, which was laid out as a grid, making it easier for first-time visitors to find their way around, London’s urban planning seemed random.

However, the highly efficient public transportation system, the London Underground or “tube,” along with its iconic double-decker fleet of red buses, optimized traveling from one famous sight of the city to another.

And so that’s how I got to know Oxford, Regent & Carnaby streets. Soho, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester (pronounced “Lester”) Square, Trafalgar & Parliament Square (where Elizabeth Tower, a.k.a. Big Ben is). The London Eye, Westminster Abbey, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Tower and London bridges, etc.

Covent Garden: a popular market to spend an afternoon shopping, eating and watching street performers

As much as these sights may seem, it’s just scratching the surface. Buckingham Palace, Marble Arch, Hyde and St. James’ parks, Shoreditch, Primrose Hill, I got to also experience these and many more Instagrammable places in subsequent trips.

But I also seemed to stick to the city, afraid to explore the unknown, risking getting lost.

That’s the thing about comfort zones.

It took me seven years, but I finally made it beyond London, and I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner!

Something I highly recommend to even first-time visitors: set an entire day aside and book one of those famous London Day Trips. They’re worth every single penny.

But do it well in advance. Don’t wait until the last minute as they’ll book up: an excuse to keep postponing it and go to another familiar city place instead.

Windsor Castle: just one of the gorgeous experiences that await once one decides to leave one’s London bubble

I used Evan Evans Tours (shoutout to Karina and Simon!), but if you Google “London Day Trips,” you’ll find an abundance of tours by multiple companies with different itineraries and price points to “suit your fancy,” as the British say.

My tour was £27, not including the entrance fees to a couple of the attractions (about £25-30 each), food, souvenirs and tips! It takes the whole day’s price up to around £140.

The itinerary was as follows: meet at Victoria Coach Station at 8:00 AM, first stop at Windsor Castle, then Stonehenge and finally a walking tour of the town of Oxford.

You’ll especially love the last one if you’re a “Harry Potter” or “Lord of the Rings” fan.

They’ll put you back in Central London at around 6:30-7:00 PM, just in time for pub hour!

As our guide said, people leisurely spend the entire day at each of these places, and by booking the tour, we had decided to see three of them in one day, so time and efficiency were of the essence.

No ticket for the walking tour of Oxford. Windsor and Stonehenge were about £27 each

It took about 75 minutes to get from Victoria Coach Station to Windsor Castle, and we had about two hours to roam around the grounds. Capture all your content here as they don’t allow photography inside.

Highlights: the grand Royal Apartments and Queen Mary’s collection of miniatures and dollhouses (complete with working elevators and tiny bottles of Dom Perignon!).

Suppose you’re one of those persons who need to take their time reading every description at museums. In that case, this tour is probably not for you and you’re better off going independently by train.

I’m not kidding. The coach won’t wait even 5 minutes for you. Pretend it’s a cruise ship.

Another helpful tip was to buy a cold sandwich (never hot food or “something smelly like Mc Donald’s”) to eat at the coach during the trip to the next destination instead of wasting precious time sitting at a local cafe or restaurant.

Like The Statue of Liberty and Monalisa, Stonehenge felt smaller in real life

Stop 2, Stonehenge was an hour and a half from Windsor Castle. As our guide, and later my partner, said: It used to be a place along the road where people stopped, checked out the “rocks,” and moved on.

Now, however, was a world-class exhibition, complete with a fancy visitor center designed by Australian architect Denton Corker Marshall, from where shuttle buses take you to a prudent distance from the actual monument.

Another 120 minutes to capture media, rush through the shop and cafeteria, and meet our guides at the coach park to proceed to our final destination: Oxford.

If you feel like you’re in a movie, it’s because this place has been the location for many films and TV programs, including “Harry Potter,” “Sherlock Holmes,” and “The Theory of Everything.”

And aside from being the location of these and many other works of fiction and literature, it’s been the place of education for artists like Dame Maggie Smith (“Downton Abbey”) and “The Lord of the Rings” author J. R. R. Tolkien.

Perhaps this is another place to take time and explore at one’s own pace. It was already around three o clock by the time we arrived, and all stores, libraries, and museums close at 5 PM.

Nonetheless, highlights include the Martyr’s Memorial, University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Christ Church College, Bodleian Library and—the one I would personally like to visit and spend some time in—The History of Science Museum, where they treasure Albert Einstein’s blackboards.

History of Science Museum at Oxford

One last thing: Oxford students and townspeople have hated each other since at least 1167. But there’s only one thing they seem to agree on: their disdain for tourists. So proceed with caution. 

48 Hours Holding Our Breath in Paris

Like London and New York, Paris always feels like the first visit. This time, however, you could cut the tension in the air as a divided country decided on a close presidential race between opposite poles.

Eurostar will always amaze me: 2+ hours from Pancras International in the heart of Central London to Gare Du Nord in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, without commuting to the airport at least 2 hours in advance—and leaving your laptop and toiletries inside your bag!

Amtrak could never.

We arrived in The City of Light to make our 10:15 PM reservation at Le Villaret, an old favorite and one of the many French restaurants pummeled by private-flying wealthy foreigners trying to deplete their precious wine programs.

Ever the political junkies, my partner and I kept refreshing our phones to the locals’ chagrin for news about the all-important presidential run-off that would take place on Sunday.

President Emanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen would face off in a contest eerily reminiscent of the Trump vs. Hillary fight in America and the controversial British vote to leave the European Union.

No wonder the French were edgy.

The Russo-Ukrainian War added another layer of tension to the French presidential contest

After closing the restaurant, as one does, a quick Uber ride took us to the thick of Le Marais, where a massive queue made it impossible to enter Le Raidd. Maybe it was for the better as a packed journey of walking and sightseeing awaited the following day.

The real treat came in the morning as we popped into the nearby Café La Perle, where designer John Galliano went on his pathetic anti-Semitic rant on the early days of social media.

We wolfed down on tartine (the delicious yet straightforward baguette with butter and jam) and a couple of allonger coffees.

Paris is the most walkable of all walkable cities.

A good stroll across both banks of The Seine would parade you through The Centre Pompidou, Musée d’Orsay, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, Louvre Museum and Tuileries Garden.

Other landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Sacré-Cœur at Montmartre, Champs-Élysées and the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery require longer walks or a quick Uber or Metro ride.

Sitting around the font at Les Tuileries to rest one’s feet is a very Paris thing to do

The cultural differences between French and Americans are (in)famous. And it’s fair to say that, occasionally, both sides contribute to annoying their counterpart.

But we had never experienced a bad service bordering on rudeness as at Le Climats, which is a shame because their food and wine program are outstanding. Maybe that’s why it wasn’t that full.

Luckily, with Paris being Paris, there’s not a shortage of places with equally good food and libations and a genuinely lovely service that makes you want to go back. 

If you’re looking for it, I recommend Parcelles (young, hipster vibe) and La Cagouille (a little off the beaten path, passing Montparnasse).

The latter serves one of the most fantastic fish and seafood I’ve ever tried. 

“Let me take a photo pretending I’m holding the Eiffel Tower,” said no one ever

Sunday afternoon, we took Le Metro to Champ de Mars, the Eiffel Tower’s gardens.

A huge stage had been installed that presumably had to do with the presidential election, judging by the number of French flags flying in the background. It was about 5 PM, and the polls would close 3 hours later.

Unfortunately, it was time for us to head back to Hotel du Petit Moulin, our cozy and charming digs from where we had checked out that morning, to retrieve our bags and make our way to the train station.

We still had time for a pint, so we popped in Cox, our favorite gay beer blast in Paris, hoping to perhaps watch the election returns on a big screen March Madness-style, but we were too early for the crowd and they had no TVs. 

After about 20 minutes of watching our lone bartender trying to bum a cigarette from a passerby, we moved down the block to Open Café.

We were looking for a Club Sandwich, so we didn’t have to rely on Eurostar’s late and tiny dinner (however impressive it is that a train serves an airplane-style meal).

Gare du Nord: time to catch the last Eurostar back to London

Sadly, some Paris cooks go home on Sunday afternoon. And, since it was around 6:30 PM already, we had to go by with sparkling water and diet coke before popping into a nearby Thai joint.

Am I the only one who thinks that although Thai food probably won’t blow your mind, it is consistently hearty and satisfying wherever you are?

We kept refreshing our Twitter feeds. Still no election returns. Even though Macron had a solid 10-point lead in the polls, people were nervous. “We’ve seen this movie before,” I remember thinking.

Every time we said “Macron” or “Le Pen” over our dinner conversation, the tables nearby flinched.

As we rode Le Uber to Gare du Nord, the refreshing finally worked, and we saw Macron projected as the victor.

His voters erupted in joy on Champ de Mars, where we just had been a few hours ago.

Fifty-eight percent of French voters (and us) were relieved. France had dodged a bullet.

For now.

Au revoir, París. Until next time

“Slava Ukraini!” from Berlin with Love

The Ruso-Ukrainian War hits you differently in the spectacular German capital.

I visited Berlin for the first time in 2007. It was a different world back then.

I remember experiencing the Berlin Wall Memorial with solemnity because of its historical significance but also optimism for the tremendous change we’ve all witnessed in our lifetimes.

Scorpions’ song “Wind of Change,” from my MTV days, remained stuck in my head for the whole trip.

Fast-forward 15 years, the advent of social media, a global pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and my second trip to the German capital had a decidedly different mood.

The Ukraine flag is visible from where once the Berlin Wall stood

Of course, I was looking forward to seeing the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag Building, Alexanderplatz, Berlin Cathedral, Holocaust and Berlin Wall Memorials.

And on the cultural side, checking out Berghain / Panorama Bar (“The World Capital of Techno”), Museum Island and experiencing a couple of restaurants with impressive wine lists that my partner had researched (more on that later).

We stayed at the Linder Am Ku’damm, a convenient and comfortable hotel located a couple of blocks from the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (“The Hollow Tooth”), one of the most important sights of the city.

The hotel lobby’s “care corner” with complimentary water, juice and snack food for Ukrainian refugees was the first reminder of our geographical and symbolic proximity to the conflict.

That feeling made the Berlin Wall Memorial and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe more relevant than ever.

“This town knows,” I thought.

Holocaust Memorial, Berlin

Berlin has an outstanding infrastructure, public transportation and one of the fastest Uber services, which made traveling from sight to sight a “brise.”

First, we took the S-Bahn from Zoologischer Garten to Hackerscher Markt to check out Museum Island where the main museums, Altes, Neues, Nationalgalerie, Bode and Pergamonmuseum are located.

Do yourself a favor and book these tickets in advance.

We didn’t. As a result, we scrambled to see what we could instead of what we would.

Nonetheless, Nefertiti at the Neues, the Greek and Roman collections at the Altes, Marx and Wagner at Deutsches Historisches Museum and “Berlin Global” at the Humboldt Forum were lovely. 

I guess the Altes Nationalgalerie will be for the next time.

Alexanderplatz, Berlin 

From Museum Island to the Reichstag is either a 7-minute ride or a 30-minute walk, which could be delightful on a beautiful spring day like the ones we were lucky to enjoy.

Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Memorial, and Alexanderplatz—which we reached after passing the Russian embassy—were another nice walk away.

It’s good that all that walking made us work up an appetite for the whole weekend.

Two fantastic Michelin star spots, Barra and einsunternull took care of that. 

There are no words to describe the wine and the food.

So, I will show you the literal cherry on top that were Claudia Schoemig’s porcelain dessert trays at einsunternull resembling tiles of the Berlin Wall.

Claudia Schoemig’s porcelain dessert trays at einsunternull

And on that other Wall, If during my first trip I couldn’t get out of my head Scorpions song, on this one, I couldn’t stop thinking about one of my favorite quotes.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime

Mark Twain

It’s one thing to read history books and another different one being “in the room where it happened.”

Past tragedies have a way of coming alive when one steps on the same soil where they occurred. It’s the closest thing we have to a time machine.

And The Berlin Wall Memorial encapsulates time through an open-air exhibition: a 70-meter stretch of the checkpoint strip directly on Bernauer Straße, showing how the border was in the late 1980s.

From there, one can peak through narrow sections of the wall and get the oppressive feeling of what it was like for East Germans trapped on the wrong side of the city, dreaming about escaping one day.

Looking through The Wall

Or, as some Slovenian college kids did when visiting the memorial, carrying on each other shoulders and trying to look over, horsing around and laughing about their peers’ half-joking warnings: “be careful. They’ll shoot you.”

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