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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.

What a difference a pandemic makes.  Having been to Bergen many many times (13??), NPS was pretty skeptical about the hotel situation.  But lo and behold, while we were trapped in the United States, a new hotel opened up and not only is it a good one, but it also houses the first Michelin star restaurant in Bergen.  A great combination!

We stayed in room 440 which was a “loft suite.”  I think in the future we would choose another type of suite, but we were in the hotel for just a few days before joining our friends at their house for the weekend.

Hotel Bergen Børs from the street

The hotel is situated in an ideal location in town.  Close to the touristy old town, a few hundred steps from the funicular, 8 minutes from the train station, and close to the museums.

Bed in the loft

The electricity situation in 440 is confusing (at best) and difficult to use.  Took me 2 days to figure it out.  This makes waking up to head down the steep stairs to the bathroom a challenge if you don’t want to awaken your partner.

The very steep stairs

 

Sitting area

The sitting area is interrupted by beams from the ceiling, which is kinda cool and kinda a pain in the ass.  Fortunately, we didn’t really spend all that much time in the hotel.

The bathroom is on the small side, but it has a great shower.

Glass, good pressure, and plenty of hot water. Just what NPS ordered.

 

All in all, the decor and the flooring is on the cheap side (a real problem in Bergen).  Still looking for a hotel with well-appointed design executed without a mind to expense.  This is not it.  I guess, like the stock exchange, it’s all ups and downs.

Breakfast was superb.  We enjoyed chatting with Delia each morning.  The breakfast area also serves as the Bare restaurant.

A visit to Bare took some doing as they are typically booked out many months.  NPS was able to secure a table with some persuasion.  The dinner was world class.  Read about the meal here.

Dinner at Bare is well worth the expense

We did Norway in a Nutshell on our first day in town.  See the entry here.  The weather was perfect and so was the timing.  Just wow.

Norway in a nutshell

We also visited KoreSee this entry about that.

Munch of course

Make sure to have a coffee and some cake at Det Lille Kaffe Kompaniet.  Really great.

Success cake

Since the funicular was closed for renovation, we walked up to the top insteadMore about that here.  Sadly, No Stress bar is no longer as cool as it once was.  But they still serve a mean Negroni.

On the last day in town, we took the new gondola up to the top of the TV mountain.  Gorgeous.  More about that trip here.

 

All in all, this visit to Bergen was tops.  Thanks to our good friends Gøran and Anne for hosting our last couple of nights.

Bergen is wonderful and the Børs hotel (the best yet) earns a high four showerheads.

 

Then again, maybe it wasn’t bergen?

Sadly when you have to give a keynote talk at a conference there is often a conference hotel.  These are great if you like hamster cage rooms, overcrowded breakfast room scrums (during a pandemic), watery espresso from machines with only one button, and that sort of corporate stuff.

Oslo is ready for xmas

At least they let us check in to 2622 early.  But for the sake of all gods, don’t stay here unless you must.

Hamster cage with bed (you can’t really see the water bottle drip mechanism thingy, but it is there)

 

Euro-shower was not plastic, so there’s that

 

But it is over a tub and crammed into the rectangle rather uncomfortably

 

This view kind of says it all.  Yes there is Fjord out there somewhere.  Past the industrial haze.

 

The (apparently coveted fjord view)

 

But it was free!  And we got to do the big show.

And the Top Floor bar makes very good cocktails if you stick to the script.  The view from up there at night is nice.  (Oslo is not Tokyo.)

 

When in Oslo, try to see some art.  If you want to add to your collection, go to purenkel.

Art

Or walk the streets.

We stayed in and had a very nice meal at the hotel on Thursday night (the restaurant seems to be called Gaio).  The wait staff is enthusiastic.  The cooking is old school but quite good.  NPS had some reindeer and a very nice Barolo.

Friday night dinner was excellent.  Definitely get to Arakatata.  Wow.  (Ask for the wine list).

The best dish this trip. Homemade spaghetti with caviar. The sauce was incredible.

Can’t wait to see you again, Oslo.  But we will award the Raddison Blu Plaza a measly three showerheads (up from two since the restaurant and bar are ok).  Nopey nope.

oslo lights

 

Ah the Lorien, it has been a while! Since NPS last visited, IHG has done all it can to change the Kimpton chain it acquired into something we don’t recognize. The good news is that many excellent people remain, like Steph Vogel who we count as a friend.

We were assigned little nicely renovated rooms without plastic showers. Just right for this one night extravaganza. NPS was in 414.

arty bed

The shower is OK, not plastic, but who picked out that shower head?!

Thanks for the Negroni Steph!

Negroni with Watershed by Catoctin Creek

Chef prepared us dinner (we didn’t order, just reveled in what arrived). Delicious.

Must say that all of the cocktails are too sweet at the Lorien now.

We called in the usual set of favors to get the booth at the Colimbia Room. Perfect evening for talking, drinking and figuring out life.

Columbia Room menu

Breakfast the next morning was the highlight of the visit! Great to see Steph and catch up.

Then it was off to a day of art at the Hirshhorn, the Phillips, and the Renwick…oh yeah and Richard’;s house too! Just look.

Make sure to go back to the Hirshhorn. It is vastly improved

Lunch at Bistrôt du coin. Always French as all getout.

The Phillips is a favorite most anytime

Dinner with Richard was followed by an evening of conversation. Anytime.

All in all, an incredible visit. Life affirming on all counts.

Four showerheads for the Lorien. This IHG thing. Harumph.

Our first taste of Rydges South Bank Brisbane left a bad taste in the mouth. But a meeting with the GM in the morning cleared things up.

While we were off having breakfast, our room was switched to a very nice suite (room 1028).

There is plenty of room in 1028. And two balconies to boot.

Wrap around balconies

Room to exist

Working desk

A separate bedroom

The bathroom is big enough for two, and has a big tub.

Much better shower. Ahhh!

The shower is very nice

Breakfast at the Gunshop Cafe is delicious. Great espresso and juice.

Gunshop cafe Sunday brunch

After which, an excursion to Stradbroke Island (called “straddie”). Ferry ride on a bus, picnic lunch, beer, hiking, gelato, swimming in the ocean. A great day.

Point Lookout

The seas were high, and we got wet, which was a blast!

See more pictures from the Stradbroke trip.

Dinner at Julius Pizzeria was authentically Italian. Great pizza and great people.

Julius Pizzeria

There is a budding cocktail scene in Brisbane. Thanks to Rachel at Wickham we were looped in. We can confirm that Saville Row is top notch. (Look for the orange door.)

Likewise Electric Avenue is a great place for a cocktail. Jess created a drink for us.

Jess at Electric Avenue

Rye Surprise
45ml Bulliet Rye
20ml dry vermouth
15ml lemon
20ml kiwi puree
40ml pineapple
8 dashes peychauds
shake. double strain. serve up in a coupette. garnish with dehydrated pineapple.

Rye Surprise

Apparently a Brisbane cocktail called the clockwork orange was a contest winner…which contest we don’t recall. It falls squarely in the tiki category.

Clockwork Orange
20ml aperol
20ml cherry heering
20ml passionfruit syrup
30ml gin (monkey 47)
25ml lemon
2 dashes orange bitters
shake. strain. serve over crushed ice in a tall collins glass.

Bars we were unable to visit but heard tell are good include: Legends Speakeasy (find the passcode on the net) and Tomcat (behind Bill Murray).

Skip the Pancake Manor. Though it is built in an old church the food is awful and the espresso is worse. Greasy spoons should be greasy but not just bad.

QAGOMA is an excellent museum. The modern art collection is far superior to the science museum’s stuff. Just stick with the art. Have a beer in the courtyard.

The botanical gardens are also worth a visit.

Four showerheads and a tip of the hat to Rydges. Thanks for fixing things. Now for some sleep!

LACMA

January 24, 2017

When in LA, we do try to go to see our old friends at the LACMA.

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Like this.

Chris Mac's ancestor

Chris Mac’s ancestor

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Blue period Picasso

Blue period Picasso

Frenimy

Frenimy

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No pictures of the shadow

No pictures of the shadow

Ahead of its time

Ahead of its time

Burn brightly while you can

Burn brightly while you can

Rodin

Rodin

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Blue sky (by me)

Blue sky (by me)