Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Illusive Chef of Erice, Part II

So where did I leave off? Oh yes, my then fiancé, now happily-married-to-me husband, and I were going to be married and we had decided to be married in Sicily. Ah, my Sicily. Of course, we chose the idyllic Erice as our setting, with its lofty towers and imposing walls of white stone glistening in the sun. The reception had to be at the Elimo…

I contacted the magical restaurant and secured the date, but this wasn’t going to be a typical wedding plan. Being so far away, we could only reserve the space. There was no talk of a tasting menu as Chef Tilotta only works with the freshest ingredients, so I was told to come on by when I arrived in Sicily and all would be settled. The fact that this would be just days before the wedding did not seem to alarm them. Me? A little bit; but with so much else to coordinate on two different shores, I let this one slide.

Months passed and I was sitting with my husband discussing wedding particulars. “Are you worried about the reception?” he asked. “We haven’t even given them a deposit. Who’s to say they’re still holding the date?” Sufficiently alarmed, I wrote to Chef Tilotta to confirm, (politely adding that we’d LOVE to know some of his thoughts on the menu). But, if an e-mail can embody a physical gesture, this one was a deliberate roll of the eyes. “We have the date. Just come to the restaurant when you get here,” was all he wrote.

Only three days to go until the big day, and we still didn’t know our menu. As instructed, my husband and I dutifully made our way to Erice to meet with Chef Tilotta, who greeted me with the affection and patronage of a father welcoming his own daughter. As we sat in the crammed room by the piano, he went over his notes on the menu, and his plan was music to my ears...

The Wedding day -- My husband and I got to the Elimo before our guests, and Chef Tilotta greeted us with open arms, then quickly ushered us on a tour of the premises to proudly show off his work. Much to our surprise and delight, he hadn’t just reserved the room with the view over the rooftops that we’d requested, but the entire first floor space of the hotel, including two large banquet halls, and the breathtaking garden courtyard with terraces overlooking the sea.

He had thoughtfully considered the arrival of our guests after the long and tedious drive up the never-ending mountain, so he’d set up a welcoming refreshment table with mixed antipasti and chilled wine in the garden where guests could take advantage of the fresh air, enjoy the views of the city, and relax before the ceremony. The garden was bathed in the late afternoon sun, and the perfectly chilled wines sat like luscious fruits promising to end your thirst. We couldn’t stop to enjoy, though, because Chef Tilotta was quickly moving on to the other rooms, showing us the round tables set up in the dining room with luxuriously decorated table linens in a rich brocade, and of course, that stunning view of the rooftops descending to the sea below.

On to the dance hall, lined with tables overflowing with cookies of every conceivable type, where I lingered for just a moment to take it in. Noting my hesitation, Chef Tilotta stopped his excited rambling to tell me to try a cookie; and like any of my Sicilian relatives, he would absolutely not take no for an answer, holding the cookie to my mouth as if his very life depended on my having a bite. Satisfied only after seeing my eyes pop at the almond explosion on my tongue, he continued to the kitchen where he hand-fed us spoonful after spoonful of each of the dishes with the enthusiasm of a child who wants to show you his newest, most spectacular toys; all deliciously tantalizing samples of what was to come.

Our guests began to arrive, and as Chef Tilotta had guessed, they were tired after the long drive, and delighted by the bounty and the beautiful surroundings. My husband and I went to our room to get ready, and then on to the whirlwind of the wedding ceremony and off to the scenic overlooks of Erice to take pictures against the fairytale background of the white stone walls over the Mediterranean.

Finally we returned to the Elimo, when the true extent of Chef Tilotta’s genius was revealed. As we sat, lavishing in the enchantment of that room, he brought course after course, each one a pinnacle of Sicilian cuisine, and each one surpassing the one before. As do all great Chefs, he presented twists and turns on Sicilian standards, with surprisingly new and inventive pairings, perfectly balanced tastes and forms, and of course dazzlingly alluring platings. From beginning to end, he held us spellbound: Sicilian pancetta in a balsamic reduction, with pineapple – a very unusual yet perfect pairing; followed by a shrimp terrine with saffron, fennel, herbs and Tabasco, each bite with just a hint of fennel followed by a touch of heat, all married perfectly in the broth, just begging for you to dip in the toast points to get every drop.

The risotto was one of the most unique I’ve ever had. Delicately molded into an elegant cylinder, and painstakingly encircled with the subtlest wrapping of infinitesimally thin slices of eggplant -- oh what Sicilians can do with eggplant -- and then covered with the lightest sprinkling of breadcrumbs seasoned with cinnamon. The eggplant was perfectly softened in texture and flavor, balancing the richness of the rice, while the breadcrumbs and cinnamon added an entirely new dimension, with little crunch surprises and a sweetness that made the dish seductively exotic.

Of course, the next course would be fish. We are in Sicily; there has to be fish. He served scorpion fish, one I had never heard of, but my husband recognized it and explained that scorpion fish is not generally eaten in the U.S. because it is small and its spines are poisonous. We Americans don’t know what we’re missing. Light and tender, the scorpion fish was presented in a blood orange sauce, its juice rich and pungently sweet yet at the same time, tart against the softness of the fish. To top it off, he added a garnish of fresh blood orange and watermelon. Not only was the addition of the fruit visually stunning, but when you took a bite of it, your mouth came alive with freshness. For the true fish lovers among our guests, this was the piece de la resistance. My brothers and his son, two who aptly fit this description, couldn’t speak for the entirety of the course. They were too busy eating to notice the rest of the world, as they hungrily scavenged that last bit of flesh from the bone.

After a meal like this, what kind of dessert could even come close to satisfying you? Leave it to Chef Tilotta, who served a simple lemon gelato in a hardened shell and watermelon sorbet; sweet, light, simple and refreshing after a full meal on a hot summer’s day.

But wait a minute, what about the wedding cake? Not an Italian custom, I had explained to Chef Tilotta on the day he planned the menu that we would need a cake, so I asked if he could do that instead. Instead? Absolutely not. In addition to. And so he added a Cassata Siciliana, a customary Sicilian cheesecake with everything but the kitchen sink thrown in.

My husband and I were, I think, the rudest of hosts as we went from plate to plate, raving about the meal, but we hadn’t tasted any of it before this day, and so each course was a gift from our extraordinary Chef. In fact, I was so delighted with the meal, that I requested that Chef Tilotta come and greet our enraptured guests; but the wait staff returned saying he would not come out of the kitchen. It took the bride herself to finally drag him out, for no Italian can refuse a request from the bride on her wedding day. He shyly followed me into the banquet hall as I presented him to our guests, and the room erupted with applause. I think he stayed for 15 seconds before scurrying back to the shelter of his kitchen.

It was at this point that my brother, a great culinary appassionato, recognized him. He told me he had seen Chef Tilotta before, on television, and that he was indeed a celebrity among the great chefs of Italy.

The dinner stands out as one of the best decisions my husband and I could have made for our day. The day ended in a blur as we danced like savages for the rest of the night, way past the designated time of the reservation, with my family pulling the wait staff onto the dance floor to join in the celebration. We were so full, very few of our guests had taken advantage of the bounty of cookies surrounding the dance floor.

At the end of the evening, Chef Tilotta brought my new husband and me into his office, letting us know that we could have the place until closing. He presented us with the bill, and there were no surprises, no additional fees for all the extras. He charged us what he had promised in the original e-mail; the e-mail that seemed so unlikely, so unsure, and so unbelievable. But in addition to the great gift of his genius, he presented us with another wedding gift, an aged and celebrated bottle of Sicilian wine to remember our Sicilian wedding. The bottle was a full magnum, and the year, one of Sicily’s best. I am tearing up as I write this, remembering the solemn and affectionate look in his eye as he made this sincere and generous gift. Remember, in Sicily, you’re either a stranger or family. We were family.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Illusive Chef of Erice

And now that I’ve spent so much time discussing a Chef whose food you will never have the opportunity to sample, I thought it only fair to tell you about another one of my favorites, one particularly close to my heart, still steadfastly practicing his craft...

In my beloved Sicily, mythic land of my forefathers, there is a town set high on a cliff above the far-reaching expanse of the Mediterranean Sea. The town is called Erice and, in contrast to the dazzling whitewashed setting of the Moors you’ve visited in my blog on Mijas; Erice has the serene and resolute beauty of a medieval Norman installation. In Erice, the towers, fortress, homes, piazzas, and cobblestoned streets are carved from thick white rock which lends the city its characteristic shimmer as the sun reflects off its walls.

I am so enamored with Erice’s many charms, that I was married there. But that’s another story.

The very first time I saw Erice was on the approach to it from the road. Rising high above the sea in the distance, you could enjoy its splendor for miles, but as in all fabled lands of myth, the closer you got, the further away it seemed. I couldn’t help but think of ancient, weary travelers, making their way slowly up the arduous inclines. But once its summit is reached, Erice more than rewards the effort. The elegantly austere architecture, unchanged for centuries, envelopes the steep, narrow pedestrian pathways, now leading up, now down, following the natural curve of the mountain, then opening up to small, flower-filled piazzas, and stunning scenic overlooks.

I was traveling with my sister and nephew, and we immediately fell in love with the place. We took about a million pictures of the town from every small corner and every high tower, browsed the shops, and visited the Cathedral. Then we got really hungry. It was early for the local lunch time, but we couldn’t help ourselves. We peeked into the lobby of the tiny Hotel Elimo, the one place that looked like it might be open. It was filled with period furniture crammed around a grand piano against a backdrop of myriad pictures on an exposed stone wall – that ever-present, beautiful white stone.

The host responded with a characteristic Sicilian grimace when we asked if they were serving yet. And after checking on their readiness and giving us a look up and down, he invited us in to the magnificent dining room. Yet more exposed stone walls, unadorned and dramatic in their simplicity, framed the row of windows at the end of the room with an unobstructed view of the city; its rooftops, uniform in their ancient sun-baked colors, steadily giving way to the epic Sicilian countryside far below. Beyond that, the mystical Egadi Islands gracefully floated on the blue, blue sea. This is the kind of room and the kind of view one does not easily forget.

The waiter brought the menu, which was rich with Sicilian specialties: pasta alla norma, a hearty pasta with ricotta salata, fresh tomato, and eggplant; -- eggplant, the ever-present Sicilian staple so indelibly linked with the island’s history (and Sicily is the only place in the world where they know what to do with it); -- swordfish involtini, a delicately sliced fillet of swordfish, stuffed and rolled in breadcrumbs and cooked to a tender perfection in a sauce of white wine, butter, and lemon; and of course, as is necessary for any self-respecting Sicilian restaurant, a veritable bounty of the freshest fish just out of the sea.

We ordered an array of dishes (remember we were really hungry) and ate family style (not that the restaurant serves in this way; but when I’m with family, it’s just understood that everyone will share). The Chef made the simplest, most ubiquitous Sicilian staples extraordinary. We were stunned with our good fortune as we went from a mixed antipasto of perfectly grilled vegetables and my sweet caponata (another Sicilian variation of the esteemed eggplant, slowly simmered with olives and vegetables and caramelized by balsamic vinegar); to a mix of pastas, some highlighting the freshest fish while others accentuated local meats in a rich tomato base; and finally on to the exalted catch of the day, some grilled simply so that you could appreciate their delicate flavors, and others that were bathed in sauces that melted in your mouth. Nowhere in the world do they prepare fish like in Sicily; and nowhere in Sicily had I tasted the local cuisine prepared with such startling and succulent subtlety. This was not only a more decent meal than we had expected, but we had stumbled on a gold mine. Without knowing it, we were in the skilled hands of the much acclaimed local celebrity chef, Carmelo Tilotta, who is renowned for his mastery of Sicilian cuisine and his wondrous creativity with the island’s endless bounty.

As we sat and raved, we garnered the attention of the stern waiter, who swelled with pride, slowly but surely warming to us as most Sicilians will; wary at first of foreigners, undoubtedly a characteristic defense long ingrained in a people with a history of invasion. As the granddaughter of Sicilian immigrants, this is perfectly normal to me; but my nephew, a generation removed, was taken aback. I told him to hang in there; Sicilians don’t open up to just anybody, but once cracked, they have a warmth and affection that are genuine and overwhelming. In Sicily, you are either a foreigner, or family.

By the end of the meal, we were happily full, and a cast of characters surrounded our table wanting to know us better, our dour waiter smiling broadly as he learned of our Sicilian grandparents -- from this region no less, -- and he laughed heartily, slapping my nephew on the back when I translated his jokes. They bid us farewell with the bittersweet yearning of friends who want to see more of you, yet know that the pleasure will be reserved for the far distant future. We left without meeting the illusive Chef Tilotta, whose acclaim we wouldn’t learn of until later, and who is surprisingly shy despite his success.

That day and that meal would stay with me. So a few years later, when my husband first proposed and we were deciding where to have the wedding, we chose Erice. Of course, the choice for the reception was obvious. It had to be the spectacular room at the Hotel Elimo and the extraordinary talents of Chef Tilotta. But as I’ve already told you, that would be for another time and another story...

Monday, June 29, 2009

Ode to the Paella Goddess

And now that I’ve opened the subject of Spain, let’s continue with the memory rush…

Mijas (pronounced mee’ – haas) is a delightfully small hilltop town in Southern Spain, in the region of Andalucia; a region marked by the utterly spectacular confluence of Spanish and Moorish cultures divinely expressed throughout its architecture, art, culture and cuisine.

Mijas, in the Moorish tradition of city planning, has quaintly beautiful whitewashed houses dizzyingly arranged around the city’s center with sweeping views of the mountain and coast below. The Moors certainly knew how to pick their settings. To meander through the streets of Mijas, is to take a little journey up in the clouds. You can spend a perfectly pleasant day enjoying the main square, scenic overlooks, and small, characteristic shops. (I love the ceramics there -- a personal obsession of mine -- with some of the best examples in all of Spain).

The first time I visited Mijas was on a brilliantly sunny day when the light made the city shine; and my friends and I immediately fell in love with it. So we decided to extend our stay with a late lunch. We had read about a little restaurant on the cliff right off the main square where the Chef was known for paella. Paella --- the king of Spanish dishes – the perfect marriage of fish and meat on a succulent bed of rice – how could we possibly resist?

The restaurant was not easy to find, hiding behind a cover of trees blocking the edge of the cliff; the only entrance forebodingly situated at the top of a steep, unmarked, and unwelcoming staircase. Thankfully, the guide book warned us of this. But the restaurant didn’t look open, so I told my friends I would brave the stairs and take a look to see what I could find.

At the top of the stairs was indeed a restaurant and the door was indeed open; but there was no one inside. Tables were arranged around the dining area, but no lights were on and there was no sign of life, until I called out, “Hello?”

First I heard the shuffle, the belabored approach of dragging feet; then around the bend, out of a Hitchcock movie, slowly and deliberately, came an old woman, small of stature with short, straight, mousy brown hair, wearing a worn house dress, white Dr. Scholl’s sandals, and a stern look on her face.

“Si?” she barked at me.

So in my rudimentary Spanish, I asked if she was open for lunch. To which she again replied, no more warmly than the first time, “Si.” I looked around a bit incredulous, given the barren dining area, and I told her I had 2 friends and that we wanted a table for 3; to which again, nothing more than, “Si.” Then I mentioned, “We would like to have your paella, would that be possible?” Now paella is not an easy dish. It takes time for the flavors to blend, and it is a labor-intensive meal with all its ingredients, so not all restaurants offer it and when they do they might not have it every day; and if they do, very few actually take the time to properly prepare it. You can find plenty of paella in Spain; but truly great paella is rare.

In response to my request, her eyes looked surreptitiously from left to right, as if checking to make sure she wasn’t heard; then she replied furtively, “Leave 10 pesos a person and come back in an hour.” At this point, I felt as if I had just asked her to reveal highly classified state secrets and I wondered if the restaurant was in fact closed and I was talking to a crazy person who sometimes stayed here; but the prospect of paella won out, so I gave her the 30 pesos and returned to my friends saying, “I’m not sure if we were just taken for a ride, but I had to leave a deposit for the meal.”

We continued to walk around for a while and came back in an hour, as instructed. Sure enough, the lady in the house dress and Dr. Scholl’s greeted us at the door – if you can call a jerk of the head in the direction of our table a greeting.

The restaurant was still completely empty, except for the 3 of us and our hostess. But there was a table at the far end of the dining room, set with glasses, fresh bread, olive oil, and that sublime variety of perfectly seasoned olives, as is customary in Spain. Situated against the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, the table opened up to a dramatic scene of the mountain descending elegantly to the sea. The view alone was already worth the 30 pesos. I was just pleased she remembered we were coming and that we were actually going to have a meal. After taking our drink orders, with as little a word as humanly possible, she retreated, shuffling her Dr. Scholl’s, back to the kitchen.

So as we indulged in the olives and bread, we took in our surroundings a bit more. My friends were delighted that I had not exaggerated in my description of the woman or the condition of the restaurant. Upon further inspection, we saw that outside was a patio that in its day must have been magnificent, complete with a pool, unfilled and disheveled, and sun-faded patio furniture. What’s the story behind the lady of the Dr. Scholl’s? But whenever we got into discussing it, she would return with her inconvenienced expression to refresh our drinks or give us yet more olives.

Finally, she returned carrying an enormous traditional paella pan, stacked high with a mountain of rice and erupting with a bounty of fishes and meats, resembling a never-ending cornucopia. We had ordered paella for 3; this could have fed a hungry family of 8. Not the lightest of fare, either. You do realize this is a rice dish, so the task set before us was a big one.

For once, her face lost its scowl as she lovingly dished out our portions onto our plates, taking great care to give the right proportion of rice, to pork, to chicken, to shellfish, to peas, to tomato, etc. etc. etc. My friends and I looked on with the patience of a starving dog seeing its long-awaited meal. For the first 10 minutes of the meal, not a word was uttered among us, except the occasional “mmmm” and “oh my God.” Then, only when coming up for air, were we able to add, “Have you tasted the clams?” “I can’t believe how tender the pork is.” “And the chicken is so moist.” “Forget the chicken, the mussels are ridiculous.” “And the peppers…”

The flavors of the shellfish blended seamlessly with the tender meats, punctuated by the occasional appearance of peas and peppers; all against the backdrop of the soft, fragrant rice that quietly reflected the mix of flavors while balancing them at the same time; a perfect expression of what paella should be, with every bite different, and yet a variation on the same delicious theme. It was and remains the best paella I have ever had.

Our stern hostess watched and listened with great satisfaction as we demolished the entire over-abundant pan to raves of enthusiasm. And like the Grinch on Christmas morning listening to the Who’s celebration, I think her heart grew a few inches that day. The next time she returned to the table, did I see an upturned mouth, albeit awkward from muscles so unused to holding that position? Did she actually smile when we told her how superb her paella was? Yes, there was a little twinkle in her eye as we asked her for the recipe and there was a lighter step in her shuffle as she went to the kitchen for a piece of paper.

Upon her triumphant return to the table, recipe proudly in hand, she was absolutely congenial as she discussed her finely-honed paella skills. “The rice must drink,” she emphasized more than once as she painstakingly explained the long process of flavoring the rice with the succulent juices of the combined ingredients. And now that she was putty in our hands, we just couldn’t resist… “So, tell us about this place?”

Our newly-socialized hostess began to talk of her father, an immigrant to Spain from Germany, who built the restaurant with his own hands – in the days when restaurants were built with your own hands. She remembered the pool, lively with customers and the dining room full with people eager for her father’s wonderful dishes. We were amazed that the daughter of immigrants would master the art of a local dish and her smile became even broader. After her father died, she kept the business going but the years were weighing upon her and so more and more it was a burden. Her fate and the restaurant’s were indelibly intertwined; as long as she continued, she would keep the restaurant going; as long as the restaurant kept going, she would continue.

We left her restaurant with the fullness and contentment that only a great meal with great company can bring. Our hostess was absolutely warm and glowing as she bid us goodbye. And I can tell you that her paella brought me back more than once to her wonderful restaurant, even on the same trip; each time happily paying my deposit.

And I have sent many a friend to Mijas, of course for its delightful atmosphere, but mostly for the paella. I would tell them that no matter what their course or purpose in Southern Spain, if they were anywhere near Mijas, they should go for the ultimate paella experience. I had friends who were going to Andalucia on a demanding business trip; one filled with bad hotels, pitiful food, and long hours. They had one break in their schedule and made it to Mijas. They saw our hostess and were happy to find that I had not exaggerated in my description of the experience or the sublime perfection of the paella. They sent a postcard in which they depicted my wonderful, reluctant hostess clad in her fabulous house dress accented by her trademark Dr. Scholl’s accoutrement. It was in this postcard that our protagonist was first and so aptly dubbed, “The Goddess of Paella.”

Just writing about her now makes me yearn to go back to her restaurant in the clouds for a taste of her ambrosianic dish; but alas, we lost our goddess to the heavens. The last time I was in Mijas, some years ago, I skipped happily up the stairway, newly renovated and trimmed, much to my surprise. I found the restaurant updated and redecorated with sturdy tables and bright, colorful tablecloths. If not for the preservation of the window overlooking the sea, I would have doubted I was in the right place. I eagerly asked for my wonderful Goddess and her unforgettable paella, wondering if I still had to make a deposit; she’s obviously doing very well. The spruced-up waiter in his crispy white shirt and perfectly ironed black pants informed me that the old woman who owned the place had passed away and that the restaurant was taken over by new management. He assured me that they served paella and that it was prepared authentically and would impress; so we gave it a shot – much to my complete disappointment. The paella was lifeless, with meats that were overcooked and dry; a Spartan array of shellfish; and rice that was thirsty and could not drink. Everybody knows, “the rice must drink.”

I write this blog as an ode to her and all great chefs in the world. Their craft is no less an art form than a great symphony or a master painting and can make for a life-changing experience. Take advantage of them while you can.

Many thanks to Peggy Bernstein, friend, blog follower, fellow Goddess worshipper, and sender of the postcard pictured above, in which she first named our Goddess.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Of Knights and Kings in Storied Segovia

There are some places that just stay with you…

Maybe they don’t come to mind every day, maybe you’ve only been there once, but the mere mention of them will inevitably bring a smile to your face and a wistful yearning to return.

This morning over coffee, my husband and I were discussing places to go this summer. As we were lost in our travel fantasy (or rather, as I was lost in my fantasy; my husband wasn’t really playing along since the coffee hadn’t kicked in yet), I brought up Spain.

Ah, Spain. Just thinking about it brought a thousand-and-one memories to mind, all calling me back: flamenco at the Moreria in Madrid where the dancers surrender to the music like loyal subjects bowing to their lord; the romance of Granada where the Sultan’s palace is enthroned among endless fragrant and exotic gardens; the crammed, winding streets and alleyways of Toledo leading to treasures around every bend; and of course, the wide, elegant avenues of Barcelona marked by the masterful creations of unending architectural revolution. Wherever the road leads in Spain, it strikes at your heart and invades your soul.

So in planning a trip to Spain, or fantasizing about one as I was doing this morning, it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a trip that would eliminate any one of the country’s unique and alluring regions. But as I recounted the places I’d like to return to this summer, I found myself saying that I could not return without a visit to Segovia.

Ah, Segovia. Like many of my favorite cities, Segovia is the full embodiment of its great and storied past, starting with a beautifully and impossibly preserved Roman aqueduct, the likes of which cannot be seen in the ruins of Rome, Pompeii, or any other city of the ancient empire’s vast reach. I can still remember the first time I ever heard of an aqueduct in 4th grade history. The teacher made such a big deal about it and I just didn’t get it. ...Until I saw Segovia. Here, the structure soars over the city’s skyline with infinite and measured arches standing as a testament to engineering genius against the never-ending battle of time.

But as time marched on, so did Segovia, destined for even greater things. Once the capital of Spain, the king and queen made their grand residence in the fairytale setting of their castle here. Layered in lore of Spanish conquest, the castle is called the Alcázar for its Arab origins, adding to the myth and splendor of the place. Turreted towers; regal fireplaces; rich and elaborate décor; breathtaking views of the countryside; of course, the throne room; and even an area for a moat; are really all you need in a castle, I find.

And for those who have ever been enthralled by the Knights Templar, either before or after Dan Brown’s popular bestseller, Segovia boasts a completely intact Templar Church. It sits on a hill, ever on guard and ever vigilant of its secrets, with a rare and enigmatic 12-sided structure, and hidden meaning incorporated into every bewitching sculpture, crevice, and carving. Fittingly called the Church of Vera Cruz, or the Holy Cross, it is said that, here, the knights kept vigil over a relic of the true cross brought back from the crusades. Some say, as they are wont to do, that the Templars hid great treasure, still waiting to be claimed from somewhere within the structure's silent walls.

Surrounding this captivating city are the requisite rolling hills, for what fairy tale city doesn’t have rolling hills where knights and princes make their grand entrance? Covered in lush greenery and dotted with the also requisite medieval monastery and abbey; these hills offer the perfect backdrop from any window in the city. Add an imposing and grand Cathedral, the heart of every great city in Spain; and the wealth of local flavors that define its prized cuisine, -- roast suckling pig was perfected here and its preparation takes on the importance of religious ritual -- and Segovia completes the picture.

I have designed trips for friends going to Spain and always recommend including a visit to Segovia. On one such occasion, when my friends returned, many of them said it was their favorite place of the entire trip. One in particular was convinced she had been there before, perhaps in another life; maybe she was even queen. Or maybe, Segovia fulfilled her fantasies of how a fairy tale city should be…

Many thanks to Sue Kelby, fellow lover of Segovia, for her beautiful picture of the Aqueduct.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Umaid Bhawan of Jodhpur, A Taste of Royalty

It was our first time to India, and although my husband and I consulted with many people who had been there, nothing could have prepared us for the experience: from the sublime to the catastrophic, the agony and the ecstasy; but one of the absolute highlights of the trip was our extraordinary stay at the Umaid Bhawan Hotel of Jodhpur.

Our journey to Jodhpur was one of the last legs on the trip, so we felt we had the hang of things by then. The flight was quick and easy and we saw the dramatic approach to Jodhpur from the air, the sandy brown architecture mirroring the dessert landscape, highlighted by monumental buildings marking the city’s past grandeur: the imposing fort high on the hilltop, and an impressively large palace crowned by an elegant dome. We had done our homework on all our destinations, but we couldn’t remember what that domed building was, so we pledged to do some investigating.

We arrived at the airport and got through baggage claim to look for our airport transfer, only to find it had not been dispatched. The hotel concierge apologized profusely and offered to have a car to us in 10 minutes; but it was hot, we were tired and I was already annoyed; so the prospect of waiting did not appeal. I told the concierge that instead of waiting, we would simply get a taxi and be there in 10 minutes.

So my husband and I hired a taxi from among the mob of available drivers, and wedged ourselves into the “vehicle” that can best be described as a tin can on 4 wheels, (my husband being 6’4, this was no easy feat); and away we went to the hotel, feeling every bump in the unpaved road along the way.

As the driver tried to sell us his services for the coming days – have I mentioned it’s 1,000 degrees and my husband is doubled in 2 in the car? – we noticed that he took a left up a hill, towards that beautiful building with the dome. Hmm. Maybe we’re in the same area. That would be nice.

We putt, putt, putted along a bit further, and took another turn towards the ever-expanding dome. We couldn’t be heading there could we? Impossible. That would be the craziest hotel ever.

Still further, and the taxi turned onto a drive unmistakably leading directly and exclusively to this mammoth building. We pulled up the crescent driveway in our little go-cart, dwarfed and comical against the size and majesty of the structure, to the grand entrance of the palace; complete with a covered drive; a grand stairwell leading up through a vaulted archway; a red carpet – yes, red carpet; – and no fewer than 12 uniformed hoteliers to greet us: 2 doormen, 2 musicians, and 8 others with miscellaneous responsibilities. As we tumbled out of the tin can, the doorman signaled for the music, and the musicians began to play one of those wandering, melodic Indian songs that string you along with endless twists and turns.

I was whisked away towards the red carpet and led under a canopy held aloft by 4 men. As I passed under it – music still playing -- they shook the canopy causing a shower of rose petals all around me. I turned to look at my husband who was trying in vain to pay for the cab, but the doorman would not allow it. He ushered my husband to my side – more rose petals – and I yelled to him over the music – do you think they have us confused with somebody else?

Once through to the other side of the canopy, we were greeted by a woman who placed a necklace of the most fragrant flowers over our heads. Just beyond her, another rubbed her finger in colorful turmeric powder and pressed it to our foreheads, an Indian tradition of welcome. After this, still another with cool wash cloths to refresh our hands; and yet another offering a bottle of freezing cold water.

At this point, we’ve made it to just within the entrance of the hotel and are finally greeted by Swaroop, our personal, and extremely attentive, concierge. Never in my life have I ever been to a hotel without first presenting myself at the registration desk, but the Umaid Bhawan doesn’t really have one, per se. Swaroop informed us that our room was ready and asked us if we wanted to go there directly or have a tour of the palace first. We opted to go straight to the room where he presented our registrations papers and did the necessary paperwork for check-in, followed by the grand tour of the room.

We had clearly had an upgrade. The room was a sprawling suite with an elegantly columned bedroom impeccably decorated with traditional Rajasthani miniature paintings and extravagantly lavish local textiles. The bedroom space was flanked by the living space, complete with oversized flat screen tv, couch, tables, and all the other necessary accoutrements. Beyond this was a vast changing room, ½ the size of my pretty sizeable bedroom at home, that separated the living area from the bath; and the bathroom in fabulous period art deco, triple the size of any that I’ve ever seen in any hotel. Finally, the piece de la resistance, the balcony spanned the length of the room and overlooked the hotel gardens, with an uninterrupted view of the Maharaja’s Fort high on the cliff and the city of Jodhpur at our feet.

When Swaroop finally left, my husband looked at me like a child just off the merry-go-round, and said, “Let’s go out and do it again!”

This of course was the first of many extraordinary moments in Jodhpur, aided and provided by the Umaid Bhawan’s incredible staff, who did everything in their power to make certain our trip to Jodhpur was perfect. I couldn’t even count the numbers of staff members in the building at all times with no other goal but the fulfillment of our every whim.

Later that evening, Swaroop gave us that tour of the hotel he had promised. The Umaid Bhawan was the Maharaja’s palace, built in the 1920’s to provide a public works project in order to help the citizens through an economic depression. It is one of many examples in India where a palace has been converted into a 5-star hotel; but here, the Maharaja still retains and occupies one of the wings.

And in the grand tradition of palaces, the Umaid Bhawan does not disappoint: from the sand-colored stone shimmering in the sunlight and stately dome high above the city, to every inch of the interior: the entry hall with its grand, convex double stairwell; the ball rooms with balustraded balconies for live music (this was the spot for Elizabeth Hurley’s wedding reception, Swaroop was proud to inform us); the art deco indoor pool and spa on the lower level; and the ultra-modern outdoor pool amid the gardens; restaurants catering to every taste; the outdoor breakfast space with live music and a view of the city; and a way beyond state-of-the-art gym with equipment I have never seen before. The hotel also offers special in-room amenities, like a drawn bath with milk or flower petals; as well as once-in-a-lifetime extras such as a private event on the covered dais in the gardens where you can plan a traditional dinner for guests complete with music, dancers, and fireworks; or reserve it for an indulgently romantic dinner for two.

The city of Jodhpur is just as much of a delight, with a bustling marketplace alive with colorful dresses; lush fruits and vegetables; heaps of grains; and shops with a dizzying array of hand-woven textiles, antiques, and works by local artisans. The elegantly latticed local architecture, colored with indigo to protect against the sun’s heat, gives Jodhpur its appropriately evocative title: the blue city. And the Maharaja’s Fort on the hill is one of the best preserved structures in all of India, with its intricately carved décor, and lush inner rooms leading you from one dazzlingly opulent setting to another.

The experience of Jodhpur and the Umaid Bhawan was among the greatest in my travels. As for hotels, the bar has been raised. I will let you know if we ever top it.

Tip: The Taj Hotel chain, which runs the Umaid Bhawan, has properties throughout India, many of which are converted palaces or other historic structures. It is not only an impressive chain with excellent accommodations up to world-class standards, but the properties are well connected, with information systems that signal your stays in multiple locations, thereby allowing them to provide room upgrades or other special services to frequent guests.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Sometimes the best laid plans are no plans at all…

My husband is clearly descended from nomads. No matter where in the world we plan a trip, his first thought is where else we can get to from there. This usually results in a lot of time spent wandering long, scenic drives on an endless quest for the undiscovered. (Maybe he’s descended from Magellan too – it’s all very confusing).

On one particular trip to northern Italy, graced by its sublime placement at the foot of the Alps, we decide to see where the road will take us… Asti, a small town known in the States for an unfortunate spumante, but actually a destination rich in culture, and in fact, a source of some truly great wine.

One of Italy’s foremost medieval strongholds, Asti was a thriving center of activity in its day and has the landmarks to show for it: the prerequisite Roman walls, the countless medieval churches, and the coveted historic palaces. But my husband and I happen upon it on a Monday when, as anyone who’s ever visited Italy knows, sites and museums are closed. So we content ourselves with meandering through the winding streets and graceful inclines of this noble city, when as if seeing an oasis rise in the desert, we come upon a towering structure with dated stone walls and an inviting open archway, leading to an even more inviting inner garden.

Upon further investigation, we see a placard that identifies this place as the medieval home of a nobleman, now converted to the city’s historic archives. It’s not open to the public today, but the door’s open and we’re beyond curious – so we go in; after all, we’re explorers. The perfect solace of the garden leads to an obstacle: an imposing and decidedly closed doorway. Perhaps the faint of heart would be turned away, but not us; we have to knock and see if anyone will let us in.

A meek, young woman opens the door and reiterates that they are officially closed, but then instructs us to come inside as she goes to find the director to make an exception. We’re ushered in like traveling emissaries and are left to our own devices in the impressive entry hall, lined with period tables and chairs, and decorated with historic maps, antique paintings and inestimably important artifacts.

While we wait, my husband and I start to rethink our plan. As bold as we are, we are torn between the great luck to have gotten this far inside, and the regret of causing a disturbance for the director for no other reason than our gluttonous curiosity. We decide it’s best to thank them graciously and quickly go on our way. At that very moment, the director arrives in a flurry of harried activity. She is small in stature, but makes a huge impression with her long, blond, completely disheveled, yet utterly fabulous hair that moves with her as she flies into the room. Clearly she’s a busy woman, so I explain in my most courtly Italian that it was never our intention to disturb her – we were merely lovers of history who were irresistibly drawn to this place.

The Signora Direttrice, part Italian supermodel and part nutty professor, immediately explains that she is far too busy and couldn’t possibly attend to visitors today. In fact, she points out, all visitors are seen by appointment only. With that, she turns and beckons us to follow, dashing through the main reception room. My husband and I strive to keep up with her as she describes the organization: a resource center for scholars, historians, and restorers to research historic texts and preserve priceless antiques from the city’s esteemed history. The Signora Direttrice turns once again and leads us to the next room. My husband and I look at each other in a moment of confusion – do we follow or is this our cue to leave – but she’s still talking; so we follow, hoping she doesn’t come out of her trance to find us still there.

The Signora then proceeds to lead us from room to room on an all-access, grand tour -- all the while telling us she has no time for it – as she points out the priceless treasures of the collection: ancient maps (my husband’s obsession, probably another indication of his nomadic heritage); historic documents and seals of the city; original furniture, impeccably maintained; the restoration room with its secret tricks for resurrecting what is lost; and finally, she talks of the prized possession of the collection: the Codex – a medieval manuscript with illuminated text and pictures, chronicling Asti’s long, revered history. It is the holy grail of artifacts, but the Signora explains she is just too busy to show us. In the same breath she takes a key from her skirt pocket, unlocks an armoire, and pulls out the heavy, rich, but unassuming old box containing the Codex, along with a smaller, simpler box from which she pulls a pair of white gloves; it is only with these that she can handle the manuscript.

As she describes the history of the Codex, she begins paging through the stately old book, indicating points of interest: important moments in Asti’s long past, written in the elegant letters of a millennium ago; a description of the ancient skills of bookmaking and the pains of preservation; and the most interesting of all: the recent discovery that 3 separate and distinctive artists collaborated on the book’s decoration. She meticulously points out the details of their individual styles: richer colors here, stronger lines there, and still more stylized forms in another. The text had just been returned from being on loan at an exhibit, where thousands of enthusiasts lined up to see it on display, opened to one page, behind thick, protective glass; and here we are, leaning inches from the book as we study page after page, relishing in each and every succulent detail. The more questions we ask the more time she spends on the work that is obviously her life’s passion. Each time we thank her and remind her that she really doesn’t need to spend so much time with us, she states again that she is indeed too busy, and goes back to the subject of the book, showing us more. My husband and I look at each other, wondering if we’re in a collective dream.

When the Direttrice finally drags herself, and us, away from the Codex, she does so with regret for breaking the spell. Downstairs, in the main reception area, she seems to want to console us for our recent loss and makes gifts of every keepsake she can find: postcards with pictures from the Codex and reproductions of historic posters of the city, which we have since framed and which now hang in our house; leaving us blissful memories of that exceptional day, and forever grateful for her extraordinary hospitality.

The moral of the story is that sometimes, it pays to have no plan at all and to wander into an area you may not know anything about -- just to see what treasures lay there. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, like the Sunday afternoon in Locarno with nothing to do but shop in a second rate flea market with old cassette tapes of oom-pah bands, but that’s another story. Usually, the smaller the town, the more appreciative the locals are of outside visitors, and the more willing they are to share their passions. I’d like to think that the director of the archives found kindred spirits that day and was as delighted by our attentions as we were by her city. Sometimes Magellan, and yes even my husband, are right to explore (but don’t let them know I told you).

Friday, February 27, 2009

That moment in Venice

When starting a blog, I feel it’s best to establish the character of the narrator – a quick story that will sum up my personality, philosophy, and tragic flaws all at once – so I’ve chosen to tell a tale that will define the protagonist (me) and my long, inevitable, often humorous, sometimes informative, and always sublime relationship with travel… (I would add some really dramatic music here, something with lots of strings building up to a crescendo, but you get the picture).

Everyone has a moment – that perfect fragment of time when everything in your head aligns and you come to a life-altering realization. For me, it was the moment when I first stood atop the balcony of the magnificent Basilica of St. Mark’s in Venice. You know the one: elegant archways; imposing domes; impossible extremes of dazzling colors on blinding fields of gold; and that balcony, gracing the façade and adorned with the famed bronze horses from antiquity poised to take off into the sky. It still boggles my mind that they let just anyone go up there and every time I do, I feel like royalty.

So there I was, overlooking the expanse of St. Mark’s Square below in all its splendor, bordered by graceful arcades and cafés with live music, and opening up to the very grand Grand Canal. The day was brilliantly sunny with a light that sparkled on the water, threw dramatic shadows through the archways surrounding the square, and bathed the entire atmosphere in golden light. A new, and yet utterly familiar scene.

And then it hit me. It was at that very moment that I thought of the painting of St. Mark’s Square by Canaletto that hung over the couch in my parents’ house ever since I could remember. Venice was my parents’ favorite place – a place that embodied the beauty and romance of their storybook relationship. For years, that painting stood as a witness to my family and its memories: my father practicing his vocals (he was an opera singer), the birth of nine children (oh, did I forget to mention I have 4 brothers and 4 sisters?), piano lessons (more like piano torture), homework, proms, tv, fights, tears, laughter, the whole range of human experience.

I used to stare for hours at this painting, my head filled with stories of the beauty of Venice, and I wished I could be there and see it for myself. What did it smell like? What did it sound like? Was it still as beautiful as in the painting?... And there I was. Finally. In the painting. Looking out on the square; feeling the salt in the air, missing my parents, my mother who was back in the states, and my father who had passed away; realizing in that instant what this place meant to them; how it tied into my place in time, my moment. A dream fulfilled. And just then, one of the bands on the square played a song that I had heard a million times growing up, one of those sweet, melodic, overdramatic Italian songs that were so popular in the 60’s; and I felt chills run through me. At that moment, I knew that if this place could inspire that height of emotion, that much wonder, I wanted more.

Many years have passed since that moment. My mother has passed away; I’ve returned to Venice more times than I can count, never missing the opportunity to stand on that balcony; and Canaletto’s painting now hangs in my home, a stalwart sentinel ever watchful, a constant reminder of where I’ve been and where I’m going. I can’t look at it without being transported back in an instant to my precious moment. I can picture the scene in my mind’s eye as if I were standing there and had never left: the light, the air, the music, and the chill -- that familiar, blissful chill returns, bringing with it the full rush of emotion, the full understanding of that moment, that place in my time.

Travel is not just going places and ticking them off your list. It is marked by sights and experiences that can alter your life forever. There is an element of rebirth in travel, a “renaissance”; a point when you understand that you are a richer person for having had the experience. If you’ve had your moment, you’ll know exactly what I mean.