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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.

 

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.

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.

Wait for it!

The High Line has been completed through Hudson Yards these days.  This bridge over 12th (?) avenue yields an interesting and somewhat cinematic view.

Our plan was to check out the Japanese Food Festival situation on closed off 6th avenue, but the hoards of people…and we mean hoards…obviated our plan.  So we stopped for ramen and sake in collectible glasses at Oramen Chelsea.

Later we took the subway down for a visit to PDT.  On the way we stopped in for a fried ice cream and a cocktail.  It’s not clear whether we were lured in to Little Rebel by the fried ice cream or the Bowie mug shot.

CR#2 to start the evening

What is a CR#2?  Glad you asked.  Click here.

Said fried ice cream

 

Said Bowie mug shot

Yes, Bowie was arrested in Rochester in 1976.

It rained.

Our intrepid hosts

Next up, a slice at East Village Pizza.

And then some “hot dogs” at Crif.

PDT is still rocking it.  We had some special fun with the paper plane.

Naked Paper Plane

 

Problem corrected by the astute waiter

Finally, a late night visit to the very local Twist was in order.  Fernet time!

So that was a day!

Our next adventure started at the MoMA, where in addition to lots of famous art to be shared simultaneously with hundreds of others, lunch was really good.

See more MoMA Where Did All These People Come From?

Some of us had waffles on the street.

 

 

The Macy’s Spring flower show

I suppose we are obligated to talk about the showers in the apartment since this is NPS.  The shower was very nice indeed.  Plenty of hot water and lots of shower nozzles, many way high up there in the stratosphere.

Sunday evening we went to see Sleep No More, which was quirky, fun, and well worth doing.  NPS missed the provocative parts.  Alas.  Experiencing theater by being IN the set is a thing.

Then it was Monday.  Breakfast at Banter south of Washington Square was great — best in the city.  Then it was time to do a little shopping.  Did you know that the Varvatos outlet in NY occupies the old CBGB space?  Wild.

There was pastry to be had at Patisserie Claude on the way to the special Chelsea apartment.

Romey visits the shrine

An ill fated “cash only” taxi ride deposited us into midtown to buy some boots and be accosted by a crazy lady.  Our walk home happened under a taxi blackout zone.

And then it was off to Chama Mama with Chalmers in tow.  Turns out that Georgian food is quite delightful.

Wine from Georgia. No not that one. Yeah that one.

The last day in the city was beautiful and sunny.  A perfect day to be sedate and walk the High Line again.

The walk was gorgeous.

So was the lounging.

There was patio time in the sun.

Our intended entertainment target of choice (and the planned high point of the NY run) was to see SJP and Matthew Broderick (I mean Farris Bueller) in Plaza Suite.  Covid prevented that from happening when both stars were infected.  We’re still planning a reprise.  In the meantime we went to see The Hangman while it was still in previews.  Though the acting was a bit uneven, the play was good with only a few kinks to work out.  As always, Broadway staging is the bomb.

Before the show we stopped in for a cocktail and some caviar at Bar Centrale.  Old school, sophisticated and a great place to unwind before a show.  Or is that wind up?  Martinis and negronis pair well with caviar.

The lights on Broadway were doing their thing.

All dressed up in the big city

And thus the first visit to NY in three years ended.  A whirlwind and a delight.  Hopefully travel has returned for good.

 

There was that pandemic thing that put a kibosh on business travel.  Some hotels and hotel chains (looking at you Kimpton) slumped, starting with their customer experience department.  I mean, no customers so no customer service?  Or something wrong like that.  Others rose to the occasion.  The Umstead Hotel in Cary, NC rose to the occasion.  Well done Umstead!

First off, the hotel remembered that we have stayed on their property before.  They left a note.  They provided an excellent room.  The only problem was not a problem at all…that was that arrival was rushed due to late aircraft arrival and there was no time to appreciate the calm ritual of the umstead.  In the end, it all worked out.

After delivering a 6:30pm lecture, it was back to the Umstead and its world class restaurant, Herons, for dinner.  Just wow.  Excellent food.  Impeccable service.  Great company.  Dinner could not have been better executed.

Herons is still in pandemic mode

The host, software security professor Laurie Williams

The Prix Fixe dinner menu is world class, and fun too.  Elk, caviar, fois gras, and a cheese desert that was a blast.

Then it was up to 512 (a garden view balcony room) for some sleep on birthday eve.

512 bedroom. Very tasteful and comfortable.

 

The bar in the hall

 

Looking toward the balcony

 

An excellent bathroom featuring an NPS approved shower room.

 

The giant tub (alas, unused on this trip)

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NPS was greeted with presents hidden away in our luggage.  Yay!  Birthday.  (NPS is 38 for those of you wondering.)

 

Foggy morning view

 

Looking over the “lake”

 

The Umstead

What else is there to do around Cary on your birthday?  Well there is Krispy Kreme.

Hot donuts NOW

And a visit to the NCSU lab.

 

A little too secure if you don’t have an ID card.

Evidence of bribery (see the table)

Then a VERY early dinner with Michael Rappa, who once again is always right about restaurant choice.  Stanbury is fantastic.

The perfect Negroni

 

Three birthdays in the corner

 

Happy birthday NPS

After dinner it was back to Cary for a nightcap at Mayton Inn‘s bar.  Fernet was available.  The waitress was a newb.

All in all, a great celebratory day with three renditions of the happy birthday song…all terrible.

Much brighter morning

 

The umstead entrance

A walk in the park was in order before flying back home.  Umstead State Park is built around an old Mill complex.  A nice warm day for a walk.

 

 

Hurray for a visit with bright young grad students!

Five showerheads and a fervent wish for an early return (or maybe often…or maybe both).

 

Ah Kimpton, you’ve become so corporate.  Such a great hotel chain ground down by middle management cost cutting and the boredom of crank turning.  Dang.  We remember the old days, yes we do.  They are never coming back.

Anyway, getting to Texas on United was not so bad even in double masks.  The flight was very sparsely populated, though it is a longish one.  Austin is a great city to visit.  Or is it a town?  Kind of hard to tell.  Here’s the story of our brief stay at Hotel Van Zandt.

The only pair of actual cowboy boots at the hotel when we were there happened to be ours.

First of all, IHG has forgotten everything about what NPS likes.  Just for the record, we like high floors, certain kinds of pillows, and rooms with no plastic showers.  We have also become accustomed to welcome notes from the GM, delicious amenities, sparkling water, and sometimes even a craft cocktail greeting us in the room from a barkeep hired by Jacques.  Not this time.  Even though the Kimpton twitter dwarf (they used to be fairies, but corporations) was given the heads up, not one bit of prep was done.  Kind of astonishing, really.

So NPS paid a pretty penny for an excellent king spa room with a view, and was given a plastic bottle of water at checkin by the Assistant Manager who had obviously not read our secret file in preparation for our arrival.  Hell, there probably isn’t a secret file anymore.

Room 701 is a great room style category.  But the floor?  Not a high one.  The amenities and water?  Nope. And the “lake view” is mostly a dusty construction site surrounded by homeless encampments.  Seriously.  Every city we’ve visited lately has a massive housing problem.  What is wrong with this country?

The bathroom was awesome.  Great tub (which we used a bunch) and a nice glass shower.

Not plastic

 

Tub with a view (that cuts both ways)

 

Sink area

The king size bed is surrounded by a bank of windows on two sides.  The view will one day be better.

Given our late arrival sometime just after 8pm, we headed for a drink to Geraldine’s on the fourth floor.  It was a Saturday night and the unmasked Texas crowd was dense.  After ordering an outstandingly made Negroni (what ice!  what ingredients!) we opted for dinner.  Dinner was delicious, service was smart and snappy, and all was well with the world.  There was a band.  They were OK.

Negroni featuring Botanist gin and Antica Formula vermouth…a house favorite

 

Behind the glass

Sadly the restaurant was not open for breakfast during our stay.  Instead there is a starbucks knockoff cafe on the ground floor with a microwave.  Not the sign of a great hotel, guys.  Frankly, the place feels more like a Marriott than a Kimpton.  No human touch and no magic.

Sunday was devoted to fun without a plan.  Brunch at Fixe was absolutely stellar.  Great Bloody Mary’s and cinnamon roll biscuits.  Fantastic food and friendly Texas service.  We took our time.

Bloody Mary of the highest caliber at Fixe

 

Hard to describe how delicious this was

 

The famous deviled eggs

 

Shrimp and grits with some garlic kale and a poached egg

In a great mood and in weather befitting Spring (60 degrees), we headed to South Congress for some idle shopping.  Our only real destination was Heritage Boot Company.  Though we got no pictures, we did manage to pick up a knife for my kilt and three pairs of handmade boots.  We even had a margarita of sorts with “Mr. Avocado.”  Great people, great boots, and a down home Texas vibe.  (Thanks Kimber.) NPS hears tell that once you buy one pair you are on a slippery slope to ten.  We shall see.

View down Congress toward the state house

 

Coffee and people watching at Jo’s Cafe

We did manage to singlehandedly support the American economy with our credit cards.  And then it was time for a margarita and some music at Half Step.  The margaritas are on tap.  We were served by Nick Cage himself.

And that band.  Three blind fellows joined by two sighted musicians and a heap of funk.  These were real Austin professionals.

Have a listen for yourself.

 

 

About the time we extracted we were late for our dinner reservation at Canje.  Dinner was excellent.  The jerk chicken was hotter than hell.  The drinks were fun.  The vibe was casual.

Seated at the bar (our choice)

 

An emergency clothespin

 

Jerk chicken that will blow your mouth off

Really it would be hard to ask for a better Sunday in Austin.

Monday was a work day with a working lunch at Qi.  Get the soup dumplings.

Part of the late afternoon meeting happened at the Proper hotel.  This place is interesting but just a little too artificial after an hour in the lobby.  The music loop may kill you if the extruded ice doesn’t.  Dinner was slated for upstairs at la piscina ceviches and fajitas.  Our hosts are enamored with their fajitas.  They were (as Sammy says) pretty not bad.

The highlight of the evening Monday night was a quick stop by the Roosevelt Room.  What a place.  Cavernous and somehow still intimate.  Superb cocktails served with whimsy and great care.  One of the top bars in the world for sure.  NPS had a paper plane (with a paper plane) and a Liberal.  Yup.  Amer Picon in the house.  We seem to have lost our party all night energy during the pandemic, especially after a full day of working in person.  So we’ll have to go back.  Thanks for the hospitality Justin.

The paper plane with a paper plane