Sunday, January 26, 2014

900 miles to 'Paris'...and why Paris is NOT 'overrated'...and Gyeongbokgung Palace does it again

With three days off last weekend, my wife and I decided to take another little road-trip. Neither one of us had ever been to Las Vegas, and as a language teacher, for years I've had many of my French students ask me "Have you been to the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas?" (Having lived in Paris, France didn't quite suffice, I guess...) As part of my professional duty, then, I decided the time had come to check out the real-faux-thing.

Up and back in just three days: 900 miles and about 14 hours in the car. Worth it? For this first time, yes. But if/when we return it'll either be by plane or we'll stay for a longer visit...

Between Phoenix and Las Vegas, there's no interstate (yet),
and for about a 50-mile stretch,
the highway is officially known as the Joshua Forest Scenic Parkway.
The Mohave desert meets the Sonoran desert ecosystem here,
where these plants--straight out of a Dr. Seuss book--thrive...

About half-an-hour out of Las Vegas, you'll cross over the Colorado River on the newly completed (2010) O'Callaghan-Tilllman Memorial Bridge, 890 feet above the gorge, with a stupendous view of the Hoover Dam, built in the 1930's.
You can't see the view while driving, though--walls keep your eyes focused on the road--pull off right after crossing the bridge and you can take a winding road to a parking area with pedestrian access...It's the 2nd-highest bridge in the U.S. and the highest concrete-arch bridge in the world.

We're not gamblers, and we stayed with a friend instead of staying in one of the hotels on The Strip...but, of course, you can't go to Las Vegas and not go to The Strip (which is not the same as 'downtown'), so here are some first impressions.

The half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower dominates the streetscape across from the Bellagio:

Such a glitzy collection of high-rise simulacra here--carefully concocted essences of elsewhere...I couldn't help but approach the whole scene with an anthropological mindset...

Obligatory stop at the water-show in front of the Bellagio--more impressive than I'd imagined it would be, especially considering the bone-dry desert that surrounds the city...
...and then inside the Bellagio, the world's largest chocolate-fountain.

And the current botanical exhibit in the Bellagio's conservatory is Chinese New Year:

A bit of off-the-Strip abstraction...

And, there's just nothing like a well-placed pair of googly-eyes, no?
(seen on some art on the façade of the Paris casino.)

Las Vegas IS a foodie-destination, and we had to eat lunch somewhere, so,
Fusion cuisine doesn't work all of the time, but when it does, it cries out to be savored. At Julian Serrano, on the ground floor of the Aria hotel, the tried-and-true Spanish plates are eminently tasty, but explore the "new style tapas" section of the menu as well.
One of the plates we ordered was the ahi tuna tempura: served on a bed of seaweed salad and avocado-rocoto-mayo along with ponzu sauce, garnished with slices of fried garlic. This dish would seem to be equally at home in the Ginza or Granada...appropriate enough in Las Vegas, where geography is incidental, but flavors matter.
Named by Esquire magazine as one of the nation's best restaurants in recent years, this is a hotel-lobby-eatery worth checking out.

 The Venetian:

A country-Italian dream, no?
Because what says "Venice" more
than this duo of country-singers?

When in The Venetian, all things Italian might come to mind, but go up to the 10th floor of the Venezia Tower, think French, and you'll find the best--and most elegant--breakfast on The Strip, which we did on Monday morning, before driving back down to Tucson:

Make your way down the elegant marbled corridor with views of the Pool Garden courtyard, then turn right at the dark wood paneling: Thomas Keller's "Bouchon." Amidst the potted palms and soaring windows, this is relaxing old-school-chic...
Get the Bouchon French Toast: layers of warm brioche, custard, apples and maple syrup. Whoever you're with should get something savory with the Lyonnaise potatoes--they're the best breakfast potatoes I have ever had...And don't skip the pâtisseries. Splurge on this breakfast as you would on a several-course-meal; you won't regret it.
Purists might protest, saying that in France, eggs, potatoes and "French toast" are nonexistent at a traditional breakfast table--bread, butter, jam, and café au lait should suffice. True. But, that's the beauty (if 'beauty' is the word) of Las Vegas--it's full of carefully crafted essences of elsewhere, but copies don't always have to be faithful in every detail. At Bouchon, you can feast tastefully in the morning as the French might, not as they actually do.

The exciting highlight that broke up our drive back to Tucson--the London Bridge. The real deal, not faux. In the late 1960's, after being painstakingly deconstructed and transported across the ocean, the London Bridge was re-built on the shores of Lake Havasu on the Colorado River. 
It's worth stopping if you're driving through the area--but my wife and I both agreed that this would not really be a 'destination' for us. Ever again. It's a curiosity. And yes, there is water. And according to some, this bridge is the second-most-visited destination in Arizona, after the Grand Canyon. But...
At least it's free. I mean--if you really want WATER, Lake Mead--or San Diego!--are not that far of a drive away...(Sorry, Lake Havasu...)


Now, back to Paris.
But not this one.

This one:
(For one glorious morning last summer,
this was the view that we woke up to--
literally turning over in bed,
and seeing this from the pillow
in our Montmartre hotel...)

There has been a spate of negative press about Paris recently. In a travel discussion I was part of the other week, several people took pride in saying how 'overrated' Paris is...Huh? 

Yes, I know--I teach French, and so I guess it's entirely predictable that I should come to the defense of the city I was fortunate enough to call home for one heady year...But, really, this recent fad of disdaining one of the world's greatest cities makes my jaw drop. You don't have to 'love' Paris--(and I gotta say, I get hives when I meet language-teacher colleagues who are over-the-top francophiles and adorn every corner of their classrooms with Eiffel-tower-this and fleur-de-lis-that)--but if you're going to be objective and educated-sounding (I mean, at last sound like you know something) you have to acknowledge the importance of this city in the history of World Civilization. (Caps intended.) Portland might be overrated (although I do love 'Portlandia'), but Paris? That's like dismissing the Pyramids or The Great Wall as just, well, you know, piles of rock. Even if you don't know the language, saying that Paris 'just isn't worth visiting' just reveals how much you don't know about what you don't know.

But maybe that's the point. If you don't know anything (or enough) about a place and don't care to find out, then, yes, that place would, according to your uninformed point of view, be 'overrated.' And for people who have a 'theme-park' mentality--those who travel only for diversion and consumption--well, yes, Paris might be 'overrated.' Unlike theme parks, Paris has litter. And homeless. And some of its subway stations smell like piss. So I guess New York and London would also be overrated. And Beijing--puhleez, with its smog and all those people who don't speak English--well, it's overrated as well. So just go to Epcot. Or Las Vegas. Then tell us how 'authentic' it was.

A couple of days ago, posted this well-written column, dealing with the same topic, "Hating Paris is So Hot Right Now." Check it out.
I feel compelled to quote Feargus O'Sullivan's conclusion:

...if we scrutinized other European cities as harshly, they'd fare no better. Look hard at forward-looking, exciting Berlin, for example, and you’ll notice that since the millennium its new architecture has become the dullest and most conservative in all Europe. And if inner Paris is a museum city, a pretty stage set from which lower and middle income people are being harried by high costs, then so is London – just without the prettiness. Paris is too old, too big and too beautiful to be over, to be completely out of date or to fail. Its inhabitants are often damned wholesale as rude or stand-offish, but if anything, it’s they who deserve to be shown a little more warmth.

And besides, a city where you can have fresh sushi delivered to you via motorcycle canNOT be 'overrated.'


...ending with Gyeongbokgung, the largest of the palaces in Seoul.
A few days ago, the winners of the 2013 Mobile Photography Awards were announced...
and for the second year in a row, 
I'm honored to have a photo chosen among the Honorable Mentions
for the Travel category:
--The Changing of the Guard, seen through Gwanghwamun Gate--
A scene from the same palace grounds,
but taken on a different day, 
placed last year:
--Hyangweonjeon, "The Pavilion of Far-reaching Fragrance"--

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A five-day road trip: from Tucson to the Grand Canyon and Santa Fe

The semester is already a week-and-a-half under way, but S. and I are still feeling refreshed from a little road-trip we took during my winter break. If you have a few days and the weather is good--which it usually is in this part of the country, even in winter--this itinerary might suit you. 

Landscape, architecture, and terroir: a five-day loop from Tucson.

Day 1--Tucson to the Grand Canyon...Day 2--Grand Canyon to Flagstaff...
Day 3: Flagstaff to Santa Fe...Day 4: Santa Fe and environs...
Day 5: the long drive back to Tucson, with lunch in Hatch.

From Tucson to the Grand Canyon--you can do it in five-and-a-half hours if the traffic in Phoenix isn't bad. There are so many worthwhile sights along the way--the ruins of Montezuma Castle, the red rock country of Sedona, the old mining-town of Jerome--but if you just want to get there, drive via the old Route 66-town of Williams instead of through Flagstaff, and you'll be stretching your legs on the South Rim by (late) lunch-time.

In winter, the crowds disappear and solitude is possible even on the South Rim. From December through February, you can drive your own vehicle west on the Hermit Road, instead of having to wait for shuttle buses. Get out to a viewpoint, watch the sunset, and if the winds are right, hear the roar of the Colorado River's rapids, a vertical mile below you...The mild afternoon quickly becomes a glacial night at this altitude, with the thin desert air--winter nights sometimes drop into the single digits, even if afternoons are sunny and well above freezing. Bring layers...

So, the last sunset of 2013...

...and the first sunrise of 2014:

So many visitors come to the canyon, take a few snapshots, and leave after just a few hours at one of the world's greatest sights...Stay at least a night if you can, then wake up the next morning for sunrise. Get to the rim early to see the chasms below light up as sunlight pours into the naked geology...

And maybe, just maybe, Nemo will make an appearance,
as he gets his portrait taken...

(Evidently, there is a 'service' in Japan that you purchase that will allow you to send a favorite stuffed animal to a foreign location so that it can be photographed there before it and the photos get returned to you. Hmm...vicarious stuffed-travel? Perhaps that's what was going on here...)

Driving from the Canyon to Flagstaff you'll pass by the San Francisco Peaks, dormant volcanoes that are the highest peaks in Arizona...

Flagstaff is a mountain/college-town worth exploring. Rather than just pass through on your way from New Mexico to California, or from the Grand Canyon to elsewhere, spend some time here--the 19th-century downtown is compact but vibrant and has become a regional dining mecca, with farm-to-table restaurants and micro-breweries.
check out the Girl with the Pearl Earring AND the Blue Backpack...

Check out Diablo Burger for lunch;

And don't forget to tip the cow.

By all means, spend some time in Rendezvous, a coffee/martini-bar in a hotel from the 1920's.

A good place to go for a walk or a run and appreciate the forest-and-volcanic-peak-landscape (Flagstaff sits in the middle of the world's largest expanse of ponderosa pines) is Buffalo Park--on a mesa above downtown, a trail loops for a couple of miles through meadow and woodland...

Driving from Flagstaff to Santa Fe will take about five and a half hours, which means you'll hit the town of Gallup, NM right about lunch-time. This high-desert town, also on old Route 66, is surrounded by the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni nations. Avoid the chain-restaurants along the Interstate and go a few blocks into town. Stop in at Jerry's Café, and as you eat your plate of red-and-green chile, then soak it up with your sopaipilla, Native American artisans might come around to your table, with some of their crafts for sale...

Santa Fe--I could go on and on about this four-hundred-year-old capital of New Mexico. No other city in the U.S. Southwest has as compelling a sense-of-place as this adobe town. At the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, you can come here for the outdoors--skiing! hiking!--or the museums and galleries...and the food is a highlight for all visitors. I'd visited here before in the summer, but my wife had never been, and coming here in the winter, we felt like we had the place to ourselves. Afternoons in the 40's, but nights in the teens...plenty of pinyon-scented coffee and chile-laced chocolate to keep us warm...

Fajitas in the Plaza on a winter morning...Breathe it in...

And just a few blocks away, some of the best chocolate anywhere,
at Kakawa:

This unassuming adobe house in Santa Fe is home to one of the world's 'top ten places' to drink chocolate. (Seriously. It ranks up there with anything in Europe or South America.) Walk the few blocks from the city's central Plaza, open the door and inhale the pre-columbian fragrance of the eight or nine 'drinking elixirs' that will be swirling and ready to serve. Free samples will tempt and educate you...

My wife lingered over the "Spanish" blend, sipping on a blend of chocolate, floral essence, coconut sugar and spices, while I had their version of "atole," a traditional hearty breakfast drink made with blue corn masa, chocolate, honey, Mexican vanilla, and local chimayó chile pepper.

But there's more to cacao here than just drinking; the handmade truffles, caramels and mendiants are arrestingly good! The house-made agave caramels dusted with chile powder (again, from the beloved chimayó peppers from their namesake valley just north of the city) or topped with nuts from the pinyon pines so common in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains--these are treats with a definite taste-of-place.

The adobe Mission San Miguel,
builtin 1610, the oldest church in the U.S.

Along the high road to Taos, the first of the old Spanish settlements in the foothills is Chimayó. It's known for two things: the adobe Santuario with its 'miraculous' dirt (the "Lourdes of America), and its chile peppers. S. stocked up on different chile powders:

...and then, we had dinner at a New Mexico institution:

Just down the road from the Santuario is the century-old adobe home that houses the "Rancho de Chimayó." 

Owned by the Jaramillo family, this restaurant is known for its carne adovada--pork that has been stewed to tenderness in red chile. You may or may not believe in the power of the dirt in the Santuario's floor, but the taste of this valley's chile will have you convinced that the terroir--the taste of place--deserves its venerable reputation. Get the "combinación picante" so that you can sample a tamal, rolled cheese enchilada, beans and posole along with the carne adovada. And don't use all of your sopaipilla (the steaming square of puffy frybread) to soak up the chile; save a corner so you can douse it with local honey as a dessert...
Across the road from the restaurant is a B&B, run by the same family as well.

And then back to Tucson. It's a long stretch--7 1/2 hours--driving along the cottonwood-lined valley of the Rio Grande...The tiny town of Hatch will be your lunch-break. This is the self-proclaimed world capital of chile peppers. The soil and climate have turned this place into a center of pepper-production, and the capsaicin is celebrated every year around Labor Day during the Hatch Chile Festival. 

We had lunch at the Pepper Pot, where, incidentally, Anthony Bourdain passed through several years ago for one his television shows...

About 1300 miles, this loop through Arizona and New Mexico--
deserts, canyons, forests, valleys of peppers, 
Anglo, Hispanic, and Native American societies...

A drive with a definite sense--and tastes--of place...