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We knew it was a very silly plan when we dreamed it up.  We just didn’t know HOW silly. In any case, the very silly plan involved crossing the Atlantic six times this summer, which provided a nice opportunity to compare business class travel on three distinctly different airlines.

The verdict?  Swiss Air wins hands down by miles.  Then lufthansa comes in fifth of three.  And united?  Tenth of three.  LOL.  Not even close.

Here are more details.

The Lufthansa 747-8 upper deck is fun.  The pods are not particularly roomy, but it is nice to have a dedicated business class bathroom or two and a distinctly private environment away from the scrum.

We flew to Frankfurt and got picked up in a red camaro.

Some of the time was spent in Heidelberg.

A train took us to the airport to depart Germany.  Getting a train directly into Frankfurt airport is very easy and convenient.

 

The flight back on a Lufthansa A330-300 was more cramped than the 747-800 and really was not as nice.  Not a big fan of the airbus.  Much less room to get comfortable.

We flew back to experience the closing of the digital psychedelic art show and to give a talk for the locals about Machine Learning Security. (Always keep your promises!)

And then it was a ridiculous two day turnaround to fly to Milan (through Frankfurt again).  This equipment sure seems familiar!  Upstairs again for a flight that was late once again but very comfortable.

We did some music in Italy.

My art face.  LOL.

The art itself: Into the Unknown.

Since my flight from Milano to Zurich was cancelled (Swiss Air has decided not to fly the northern Italian routes any more), I opted for the fast train through the alps.  Just beautiful and very fast.  The only issue was all the stuff I had (a huge guitar, a violin, a mandolin, a tube of art and a big roller bag).

Getting all the stuff on the train to Zurich and finally getting a taxi to the airport was a thing. The Zurich train station was under construction and a pain in the ass to negotiate.  Finding the taxi stand was a serious challenge and nobody seemed to want to help.

So we were grumpy, but everything was very smooth at Zurich airport in spite of our SSSS security status. TIronically, the SSSS actually speeded me through security faster.  And a surprize upgrade came through!

Upgraded on a Swiss Air hop to Boston!  Wow.  The seat was enormous and the service was a blast!  Best by far.

Even the food was great.  Like you might even eat it not on an airplane.

Actual espresso macchiatto

Standard issue mimosa.

 

What to do with all this room on the card table sized table?  Wine tasting!

The crew was a blast (see more below).

The food was delicious and not overcooked.

Cheese for dessert.

Even Grappa.

The silliest thing that happened in all of these cross-Atlantic hops was the wine tasting.  Since the card table sized table was so huge we decided to fill it up.  Much fun was had.

So it was off to NH for a day to play music, and then a hop down to repack suitcases through Dulles.

Poor moonshine was sad to see me go again.

Finally the time came to take some actual United business class flights.  This plan was a B767-400.  The pods are a bit tight and the service is nowhere near as good as lufthansa or Swiss Air.  On our way to Madrid, our flight attendant was unable to remember that we requested expedited service.  And god forbid you know that you can request slippers and an extra pad for sleeping!

 

We’re spoiled and we know it. Madrid and Barcelona were great.

We postponed our return trip in order to shake the COVID that we caught in Spain.  Other than the trip was magical.

On the way home, the crew was better than on the way out (though the captain was the same and she played the same beach boys music).  All in all, United was inferior service on all fronts.

Time to step it up, united!

Moonshine was happy to have us home!

 

Do you speak English?  Do you fancy (or maybe, like, if you are American, “like”) sitting by the pool when it is 100 Fahrenheit degrees outside?  Are you a hipster, or maybe hipster inclined?  Perhaps hipster curious?  Then this is the place for you!

The fact that this place had rebranded itself to CoolRooms Palacio de Atocha from what was most likely Palacio de Atocha before says a bunch.  In English.

The pool rocks.  Just come for the pool.

We’re having a grand old time by the pool.

Our room is 40.  Maybe it is a “junior suite” or some such.  The room is built into the top floor attic.  It’s pretty hot in Madrid still, and the A/C is having some issues trying to keep up.  It does OK if you close all the windows, shut your eyes, and try to be invisible.

The room is nice. Hipsters dig it.  There are USB ports in random locations.  There is a bluetooth doohicky for music.  Right angles are rare. There are two copies of everything but the toilet and the makeup station in the bathroom.

Two copies!  Romey can take a cold shower while I take a hot one.  Simultaneously.

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There is a note from the GM with some yummy items.  This is so hipster that NPS felt instantly at home (but add an email address so we can ping you Señor GM).

We’re just swinging back out of Spain tomorrow and still moving slowly.  So time by the pool with too many Negronis is just what the Doctor ordered.  Doctor Feelgood, is that you?

Oh it IS doctor feelgood.  Yay!

Before we got here there was no graffiti in the furniture pile.  We fixed that.

…do dee do deeee do…

Dinner at Los Porfiados was very good indeed.  Fernet and Coke for the win.  We were the only English speakers in the place.  And, frankly, we should have spoken Italian.

Do you know how to make a fernet and coke?  There is THE WAITERS WAY (which is wrong) and there is the way they do it in BA.  Do it the BA way.

We will deface your napkin.  A cute hack.

Honestly, the empanadas here are the best I have ever had anywhere.  Just wow.  The veal was good too.

On our last day in Madrid, we bought some stuff and we had some drinks by the pool.  It was perfect.

Five showerheads and an upgrade to Spanish plus some more powerful A/C units for the CoolRooms BestRooms YouAreNotWorthyOfTheRooms Palacio do Atocha.

 

 

 

First things first, Hotel Alma is a five star hotel.  So you kind of know what to expect.  The Alma Barcelona feels Japanese on entry and in its design sensibility.  And it is similarly quiet and a little stayed.  Ultimately, it could use a splash of life and fewer hoity-toity guests.  But then again, it is perfectly suited to its slightly snooty demographic.  You will not find any hipsters here.  In fact, after midnight at the bar you won’t find anyone at all.

But it is nice to be overly pampered, have a room where the A/C is beyond sufficient, and have lots of room to spread out.  So all told, the Alma fits the bill this time.  Note that its location is about 10 minutes from the heart of tourist-land.  So plan to taxi.

The staff at the Alma is trying hard to be five star worthy and they almost achieve it.  Almost all are friendly and helpful, but attention to detail and followthrough is lacking.  Perhaps counterintuitively, relaxing a notch and having more fun by loosening up would probably help everyone.

The Madrid train station (at Atocha) gave us a taste of green before our fast train to Barcelona (and a drop of 10 degrees Fahrenheit).

We were situated in room 301 (a “superior executive suite” in the grade inflated nomenclature of the hotel).

This room is nicely appointed, large, airy and a good place to camp for a few days.  The street below is not noisy, and the A/C is up to the task.

The bathroom in 301 is large and marble-lined with tall ceilings, a tub large enough for two, a beautiful shower, and tons of hot water.  Yes please. But we had to bring our own bluetooth device to stream music (well, we had to buy one on La Rambla), and the TV would not stream content from the computer without an HDMI cable.

All told the Alma is a great base of operations for a visit to Barcelona.  It is conveniently close to la Pedrera (Casa Milà), good retail in l’Eixample, and plenty of great food.  Walking is possible if you are up for 2 km at a time.  Since we were taking it easy during COVID recovery, we appreciated all the aspects of the Alma.

Speaking of which, the garden is magical and serene.  If only there were a pool.  But there are snacks and Negronis.

The food at the Alma is delicious and carefully prepared.

On Sunday night, we had dinner outside in the garden at Jardín del Alma, a restaurant that is trying very hard to be upscale, but not quite getting over the threshold.  The food in Barcelona is so good that unless you are staying in the hotel, a visit to the restaurant may not be in the cards.

Ingredients are fresh and service is OK.

Much better is the vaunted hotel breakfast.  Everything about the breakfast situation at the Alma is top notch.  Only the service could be improved.  Once again allowing the staff to relax and maybe have a little fun would likely help.

We enjoyed wandering the gothic district after a walk down to the sea on La Rambla.

After a swing by the Cathedral, we chanced up on a hotel rooftop bar of Hotel Colon.  Go up to the seventh floor, the view is great and the food is delicious.

Why, they even have an Aperol spritz available.

La Rambla flowers.

Perfume.

Just by Gaudi.

Speaking of which, a night visit to La Pedrera is definitely something to do.  We had an excellent dinner afterwards at La Bodegueta Provença.

One night we attempted to visit Park Güell, but were turned away at the entrance because it was “full.”  No guidebook has anything to say about that.  Do not plan to go there for sunset without a ticket.

Fortunately, all was made well with a fantastic visit to Toma Ya Street Food, which was homey, friendly and delicious.  We topped that off with a stop in for some world class cocktails at 14 de la rosa.  Just superior in all respects.  We had a Liberal together as well as an Industry Sour.

We also made a leisurely visit to the Picasso Museum and had some Ramen for lunch one day.  We skipped the sagrada familia after battling their website for tickets.  Spanish websites really need some attention.

All in all, our visit to Barcelona was very relaxing and low key.  We’ll be back for sure to see more sights and experience more night life.  Next time no COVID.

Five showerheads and a wish for the staff to have more fun for Hotel Alma.

 

We came to Spain for an in person meeting—our first encounter as a group since COVID struck the planet.  High bandwidth.  Full of energy. Intense and productive.

The meeting was organized by the best of professionals who discovered an excellent location in the Pestana Plaza Mayor, a refuge in the heart of the tourist zone which manages to avoid most (but not all) of the Disneyfication of Plaza Mayor.  The location really couldn’t be better for first timers to Madrid.

The Pestana is squarely in four star category, like right smack in the middle.  This kind of hotel is perfectly suited for its demographic.

Our arrival process in Madrid was definitely a let down after all the rumors of long lines at customs, COVID QR codes, and lost luggage.  The QR code that took so much effort to secure was not even glanced at in the blue lane.  Our plane was first in. Customs took less than 2 minutes.  Our luggage arrived within 5 minutes, barely enough time to get our bearings.

About the only challenge at arrival was the absolutely cocaine-addled Serbian taxi driver who insisted on aggressively hauling ass through Madrid, unceremoniously dropping us off at the wrong corner past the hotel and insisting on being paid cash.  Anyway, we made it in quick.

So quick, in fact, that we were way way way too early to check in.  We were offered a shower in the (common) spa area.  Which was OK if you don’t mind other people stopping by while you are in your underwear.  The spa was very hot and not properly cleaned and cared for, but the showers work.  Management could do with a better solution to offer early arrivals a more civilized welcome.  FWIW, this problem happens all over the world.

Somewhat freshened, we crossed paths with a colleague just in from Chicago and sought out some espresso and juice for breakfast.

The irony of having an intensely good tiny espresso and some fresh squeezed orange juice just next door to a generic Starbucks was not lost on us.


We stopped in at the Mercado San Miguel for some tourist-priced street food and made our way through old Madrid.  Finally it was time to check in.

We were assigned room 117, a superior room in a classic hamster cage design (nothing like a rectangle with some strategic mirrors).  This room is too tight to spend a week in (more about that to come), but it is fine for a day or three.

The superior category rating comes from the balcony which overlooks Plaza Mayor.  All of that seems awesome until the fourth or fifth night of listening to the hack “musicians” loop through Hit the Road Jack or the Disney princess medley accompanied by a Casio soundtrack on accordion.  Someone should invent a pandemic that wipes out the accordion players in one fell swoop.  The most amusing part of the street music problem is the cat and mouse game they play with the police.

The view from the balcony is excellent.  It is hot as the Dickens in Madrid this week, with temperatures above 101 Farenheit every day.  The breeze through the balcony door is hot.  The A/C in our room is almost up to the task.  Almost.

The shower in 117 is fantastic.  Glass. Lots of hot water.  Plenty of room to get clean. 100% NPS approved.

Lunch with the team from the company we’re advising was incredible at Sa Brisa Restaurante en El Retiro.  We started at 2:30 and finished at 5.  Very Spanish of us!

The rooftop pool at the Pestana is a long skinny rectangle maybe a lane and a half wide.  It is unlikely that the Madrid summer olympics will be held here anytime in the future. But the water is refreshing and the beer is, well, beer (don’t tell Markus).

After this excellent start, a major setback in our trip happened on day one.  After receiving an email from NH about a positive COVID test among the people I was on stage performing with, I decided to test myself in the morning even though I was pretty much asymptomatic.  One positive test result later, it was isolation time and worry for my partner who was also well exposed by that time.

We are still in isolation and recovery mode.  By now I am almost fully recovered and plan to retest tomorrow.  My partner is still in the heart of it (though she has never tested positive we are treating her as if she did).

Anyway, the pretty much constant view became this as the table was shifted over to the balcony door for a day long zoom meeting.  AUGH!  Honestly, I know we are all done with zoom by now, but imagine being fully prepared to chair an in person meeting full of great people from all over the world and then being relegated to zoom less than 200 yards away from the actual meeting.

Lets just say we’ve spent an inordinate amount of time trapped in 117, venturing out to walk the city in the evening once or twice, remaining masked and socially distanced.  Eating room service food, take away pizza, and breakfasts fetched by whichever one of us was the most healthy.  Masking even in our room together.

The hotel has been a very good base of operations, the staff accommodating to the highest degree (we are being very careful and mindful of them), and the interstitial time long and full of nothing.  We even streamed 21 grams one night.

Speaking of which, the room TV/Internet tech all needs to be replaced here.  It is old and it does not work with modern gear.  Good luck making it stream anything.

We are existing on Spanish time, getting up late, lunching well into the 4pm hour, and eating after 10pm.  Can’t wait until we can do that with other humans.

A special breakfast salad brought up for consumption.

A socially distanced Negroni. This plaza (Plaza de Santa Ana) was filled with packed restaurants at 9:30pm.  We asked for a table far from everyone, and had our first proper Negroni of the trip.  We were hoping that would cure us.

That night it was ice cream and potato chips for dinner.

Incidentally, our room is on the first floor above the plaza the bottom right of the lighted doorway square.

Great take out pizza can be found at Pizzamascalzone.

Have an Aperol Spritz…if you can find one.

Be a human.

Walk madrid.

Finally, a word about the common areas of the hotel.  The grand stairway leading to the Plaza Mayor (and to the breakfast room).

Breakfast is excellent.  Having it in the breakfast room and hotel restaurant would be nice.  But so far, no dice.  Fortunately there is Paula.  Paula helped arrange for special treatment for my partner during a number of breakfasts this week.  She was the most helpful and friendly person we encountered.  Be like Paula.

 

We did finally venture out (carefully, slowly, and fully masked) to do some shopping at Paloma del Pozo and to see some art at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.  See our blog entry here.

And we greatly enjoyed an in house Aperol Spritz conjured up by Paula.  (See Aaron?  We fiigured it all out.)

There is obviously much more of Madrid to see.  Until our next visit!

All told, four showerheads and escape from the global pandemic woes for the Pestana Plaza Mayor.  Can’t wait to experience Madrid properly.

 

 

Upon arrival in Italy, NPS was whisked off to perform, postponing arrival at Villa Emma by several hours.  (For more about the first in country performance of our impromptu group, Into the Unknown, see Making Music Near Biella (Miagliano).)  By the time Davide dropped us off at the property it was dark and beginning to cloud up.

It rained.  Walking up the stairs, surrounded by newly met strangers who were already in bed, at midnight, in a lightning storm with rolling thunder, in a slightly dilapidated old Italian villa from the 1800s…really you couldn’t write a more hackneyed scene.  But there you have it.

There were probably vampires.

In the morning the splendiferous beauty of the place was apparent.  Set in the mountains east/northeast of Milano outside of Biella, Rialmosso is a tiny collection of houses built high into the side of a steep hill from Balma.  Villa Emma is two very steep very tiny roads up from the Church at about the same level as the top of the bell tower.

By this point in the trip, music leaks out of the house.  For example, Chopin.

We have convened to create some art.  But the already slightly whacky plan has been partially derailed by COVID, which has taken out three artists, including our fearless leader.  That means the rest of us are assembling art on our own and performing.

We spend much of our time practicing on the back veranda.

Which has views.

And feels as comfortable as home because of the people.

Collective dinner on stage

COVID quarantine has shifted everyone around.  NPS is in this room with three beds (it is always good to have extra beds around just in case?).  Sometimes a bat visits.

Ceilings are a thing throughout the villa.

Fittingly, the view from this room is of the practice space.  This trip is, after all, about making some art.

The kitchen is reasonably equipped, but not by someone who actually cooks. So there are gigantic whisks and tiny nutmeg graters, skinny spatulas and knives that saw.  All in all, the situation is well beyond workable with very good grocery stores about 10 minutes away by car.

One major benefit of the vila is the huge windows that allow lots of fresh air to pervade the house.  Because of our COVID problem we still mask inside, but the delta between fresh air inside and outside is minimal.  The mountain air is fresh and cool.  Sometimes the mornings are chilly, even in July.

The healthy people have been relegated to the downstairs bathroom.  It does not meet NPS standards, but it is large and the water is hot. (Well, the water is hot for some number of people in a row, anyway.)  If you think of this stay as a giant camping trip, it is very cushy indeed.

We’ll just not even comment about the shower.

Maybe the COVID bathroom is better.  We will never know.

 

The common areas are mostly downstairs and are beautiful.  We commandeered one chunk as a bedroom to keep everyone distinctly separated.

The wine situation in Italy is excellent of course.  And fixings for Negronis can be gathered by visiting only two stores.

The bar

 

A car is an absolute necessity here.  Plans to have one available on this trip fell through, and NPS solved the problem with the application of vast quantities of cash.

Plan to rent a car if you stay here.  Getting a bus to Biella is possible, but there is no Tabacchi nearby to purchase bus tickets.  The ride to town takes 52 minutes.

As always in Italia, shopping is a daily phenomenon.  That requires either super human patience or a car.

We have been haunting a couple of important sites in the area.  The first is La Casa del Gelato for ice cream (25 minutes of fun to get there).   The other is Loft Cafe in Biella where we just have to stop by for a Negroni from time to time.

More to come here.

All told, we’ll aware three showerheads to Via Emma.  Bring your tribe and revel in Italy.

It is in Heidelberg, so that’s good!

And there are some great people in town at the same time to have some fun with.  So that’s good too.

For what it’s worth, NPS actually knows better!  We should have stayed at the arthotel or maybe even Hotel Ritter with the old people.

I mean, any hotel actually named Staycity Aparthotels is gonna be exactly like this.  So just don’t.  LOL.

Hamster cage 223 is just like every other hamster cage here.  Looks great in pictures because of the veneer and plastic.  But it is made of veneer and plastic.  And it has the design sensibility of a modern TV.  Big black slab with some fake wood veneer pasted on.

Speaking of the TV, here it is splotted prominently on the plastic veneer architectural feature.

The toilet does get its own plastic room.

What a nice touch to add those moth orchids!  They are easy to care for after all. And… Oh no wait, they are plastic.  LOL.

Whatever you do, do not steal the hangers!  They are very valuable as they are not made of plastic.

The shower area looks great and there is even glass!  But really, the floor is all thin bouncy plastic.  (We will give them props for good water pressure and plenty of hit water.)

So just don’t.

We’ll leave you with some Heidelberg to cleanse your pallet.

 

Over here on the “used to be an American Army base side (which is quickly transforming into a high tech center, Mandy’s Grill is a great place for breakfast.  Very much international and tasty.

The walk to the center is not too bad from here (about a mile), and there in tourist zone you can find most anything.  Read some science with a Hugo or a Capari Orange.

AAAAAUUUUUGGGGH!

Anyway, two showerheads and no hope for redemption for the Staycity Aparthotel.  We’ll be smarter next time.

 

Our first foray into the city was not that long ago, but was directly impacted by COVID when both stars of Plaza Suite were infected.  We went to see Hangman instead, an OK play, but not really all that.  And then it was back in Virginia for the advent of the Spring green.  Were some of us disappointed?  Why yes we were.

So, soon enough we were back in the city to take another crack at Plaza Suite do some business on the side.  The original plan was to fly in Saturday evening, so we booked a room at the Muse, one of the Kimptons of yore.  Bottom line: the IHG takeover of Kimpton is complete.  These days, the lobby of the Muse seems to be filled with aging midwesterners who have accumulated enough IHG points by staying at many Holiday Inns that they are splurging on a trip to Broadway and the big city.  Kimpton is hip no more.

Times Square remains a Disneyfied tourist attraction and a traffic snarl.  That’s nothing new.

The Muse does retain much of its old staff, and that is nice.  But its computers are corporate and the wiggle room is gone.  So our request of room 1703 was ignominiously ignored due to the fact that we expanded our stay to two nights instead of one (really with plenty of time for the hotel to adjust) and didn’t feel up to switching rooms halfway through our stay.  That leaves us surly and disappointed.

Somehow I think we ended up accumulating lots of IHG points due to all of this.  But guess what?  NPS does not give one shit about IHG points.  None.  We just want really great rooms for our cash money.

Plus it rained the whole time, so 1506 was not all that it’s cracked up to be what with a soggy balcony.

It was great to see Madou.

The rain made business in Brooklyn interesting too.  Traffic was a thing.  Our visit to One World Observatory for dinner was hilarious with zero visibility.  LOL.

Finally we ditched the tail and ended up at Katana Kitten for some real fun (thanks to Jacques for the pointer).  I mean, check out this before and after!

Before Katana Kitten

 

After Katana Kitten

Things were blurry.

Thankfully the canary extracted us before the blurry things got much farther out of hand.  They did get far enough though, and Saturday morning was hard.

Returning to 1506 after a night on the town?  Nah.  The Muse days are over.

At least the shower is NPS approved.  A very nice one.

After recovery, we visited the Guggenheim for a Kandinsky fix.  Ahhh.  That and ramen will do it every time.  It was a glorious afternoon.

There are times when ramen can save your life

After a nap that stretched on just a little too long, it was dinner at Junoon.  Highly recommended.

Breakfast at Banter (the original one south of Washington Square) is fantastic.  The mushrooms are worth talking about.

All dressed up and ready for Plaza Suite

Now it’s time to see the play and then scoot to EWR for a quick hop home.

Four showerheads and a demotion for the Muse.  We miss our Kimpton.

 

 

 

We arrived in NY after a long tarmac delay caused by high winds at Newark.  Newark was, because of the stoppage, packed to the gills with people, and the wait times for the (awful) restaurants in Terminal C were over an hour.  So we did what any sensible traveller would do and took a seriously skanky NJ cab into town for Tapas at Mompou.  The tapas was great, and the vibe was pure NJ.

A quick Uber into the city landed us at our home for a week, Bill and Lisa’s apartment situated on 20th Street between 7th and 8th.  You gotta love friends who invite you up when they score a place for a month in the city!  Lucky dogs all around.

The city at night is a welcome view.  This is the first NPS visit in too many years.

Our first jaunt led us down the High Line to the Whitney.

Checking out the Whitney

See All’s Well at the Whitney Biennial for more.

The Little Island has been added to Manhattan as of late.  It’s a quirky little part worth a quick visit.  More about our quick visit here.

The Little Island as seen from the Whitney

Spring was everywhere on a blustery gray day.