Authentic is a commonly used word to describe the ideal travelling experience. As anyone who has been to Prague, Piccadilly Circus or Patpong Road can tell you, you can find a little slice of (North) Americana anywhere you go, which makes avoiding tourist traps difficult even for a seasoned Hobbyist. Reviews of good restaurants always comment on the authenticity of the dishes or, even better, if the place is “frequented by locals”. Hotels, streets, parks and watering holes are all judged on how untouched they have been by globalization. Is this somewhere you can truly experience something authentic to the area and thus new to you?
Our search for authenticity has brought us to Logrono, the sleepy capital of Rioja, one of Spain’s resurgent wine regions. The city pulls you in immediately. The streets in the centre of the town are all pedestrian not to make them more charming for tourists, but because the 18th century buildings lining the streets are not far enough apart for cars to pass between them. We arrive in the early afternoon and find the Spaniards in siesta: everything is closed and the city is asleep. In order to manage the 36 degree early summer heat, we too partake in siesta. The search for authenticity is tiring and it has been a long drive escaping Barcelona and leaving our fellow travelers behind.
We reemerge in the early evening and order a bottle of crisp local rosé in the setting sun. Those who tell you the Spanish only make red wine are incorrect, whites and rosés aplenty are offered up as a relief from the heat. These lighter wines are wonderful, cool and refreshing, and serve as simple pairings to the Spanish food they were made to match. Rosé complete and the sun now set we head off to our destination for the evening – Logrono’s only very slightly famous Calle Laurel.
Calle Laurel was one of the birthplaces of pinxos, a form of Spanish cuisine very similar to tapas but smaller and most commonly served on a toothpick. While they were (most likely) born here, pinxos have probably been perfected in San Sebastian where world-class chefs use innovative techniques and ingredients to create a gourmet experience. In Logrono, pinxos remain true to their roots; a simple bite served with wine for usually 2 euro and Calle Laurel is where you go to find the best of them.
We walk onto the street and each restaurant has a window opening directly from the kitchen, you simply walk up and order a pinxo and a glass of wine and in second you are handed a wonderful Riojan white, rosé or red and a small bit of something truly special: fresh squid, lightly grilled with a subtle garlic sauce; spicy pork grilled to perfection over an open flame; Spanish tortilla (essentially an egg and potato omelet) on a piece of fresh bread; grilled pimentos with large chunks of sea salt; or the best patatas bravas you have ever had.
As we wander up and down the street in food and wine heaven, not everything is easy. The search for authenticity has taken us out of places where you can make do in English, so pinxos are generally obtained via broken Spanish complimented with hand signals … but there are lots of smiles on both sides of each transaction. A three-piece ensemble plays simple music in the main square; we drop a few euro coins into their hat. We get the impression that the band is not here to make money tonight, that this is just what they do on Tuesdays. Our Euros seem like a small bonus that will no doubt be converted into pinxos during their next break.
After a few hours and many small glasses of wine our final stop finds us at Bar Soriano. The sign above notes it has been there, serving the same thing, since 1954. Soriano is run by three gentlemen in their mid sixties: one of whom handles wine and money, one with a large knife doing prep and one standing over a small, steamy and very crowded grill. The grill has only one thing on it, the one thing Soriano sells and has ever sold: mushrooms. We order four pinxos and exchange our six Euros for four glasses of white wine and four toothpicks. Each toothpick has three perfectly grilled white mushrooms topped with a small shrimp and drizzled with garlic oil and each bite is just what we wanted: simple, authentic and delicious. We finish, crumple our napkins and drop them on the floor (as local custom demands) and look at each other; without speaking we turn back and ask for four more. We have come a long way to find this and now that we have we want to soak it all up – the thrill of a new experience.
Get here: For a true Spanish experience, Logrono should be a stop on a drive from Barcelona to San Sebastian (closest airports are Bilbao and Barcelona, no train access).
Stay here: Hotel Marques de Vallejo
Eat here: Bar Soriano (Travesia de Laurel – of course there is no website)
Drink here: La Taberna del Laurel (Calle Laurel – also try the patatas bravas)
As well-travelled hobbyists, we know when we are somewhere special. Be it eating breakfast on a balcony overlooking the caldera in Santorini or hiking to a pristine mountain lake in Slovakia’s Carpathian Mountains, some places have a spirit that both relaxes and overwhelms you at the same time. Going to these special places is a shared experience; doing something people have been doing for years that has not been changed by modern times. We were pleasantly surprised to find that same feeling at Wrigley Field.
The past few years have seen the demise of North America’s great sports stadiums. Demand for luxury suites, giant video screens and enhancing the “Fan Experience” has led to the closure of the legendary venues: the Montreal Forum, the Boston Garden and Yankee Stadium have all been torn down and replaced with state of the art multi-use entertainment monstrosities. After replacing the cramped raucous Chicago Stadium with the cavernous lifeless United Centre, Chicago teams bucked the trend. The Bears still play lakeside in Soldier Field and the Cubs play at creaky old Wrigley Field, built in 1914 as the home stadium for the Chicago Whales of the Federal League.
It is an overcast May afternoon and we walk in through the crowded main entrance. The concourse cannot be compared to a modern building, bare cement adorns the walls and steel pillars supporting the stands are visible everywhere. This concourse was not built to serve as a shopping mall – it is simply a walkway, the action is on the field. We find our seats (first drying them from the morning’s torrential downpour with our shirt sleeves) and are immediately transported back in time. Compared to other stadiums, what immediately stands out is how intimate it is. Wrigley is small, holding only 41,000 fans and those 41,000 fans are packed into an efficient space. The bullpens are connected to the field and fans can chat with the pitchers waiting for the call the entire game if they choose. In left and right field the bleachers are the foul ball lines. As a fan it does not feel like you are watching a game: you are involved.
Sitting in our seats, the game progresses slowly, as it should. Baseball is a pastoral activity and Wrigley brings you back to that. The entertainment is provided by the game and between innings by a spirited organist. There is no other music at Wrigley, only the sounds of baseball. Seasoned beer vendors wander up and down the aisles and we grab our first (of a few) Budweisers and though we generally prefer following the beer recommendations of our fellow Hobbyists, in the moment it seems like this is about as good as a beer can get. We mix in a ‘Chicago’ (hot) dog with mustard and onions, opting out of the open communal relish bins, and intermittently watch the game and talk to our fellow fans. We talk about food, drink, life and baseball; on a Sunday afternoon at Wrigley any topic sparks a lively conversation. Especially seeing the entire audience rise to their feet during the 7th inning stretch to sing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame” along with the aforementioned organist.
The game ends with a quick 1-2-3 strikes by the Cubs closer in the top of the 9th and though we cheer with the home crowd (singing the Cubs fight song) we had so wanted the Pirates to tie it up and take us to extra innings. We are not ready to leave. Why would anyone want to leave this place, this time? We have been to other baseball games and other stadiums but this experience does not compare. Those were sporting events, this was a life event, a perfect afternoon having a drink, talking to friends and root, root, rooting for the home team. They won, but it was a shame that the experience was over far too quickly.
Get here: Fly to Chicago’s Ohare International Airport from pretty much anywhere
Stay here: Roscoe Village Guesthouse
Eat here: The Purple Pig
Drink here: Kingston Mines (classic Chicago blues bar)
Skiing in western North America, particularly in British Colombia is better than skiing in Europe; the snow is deeper and fluffier and the mountains are more challenging. However, skiing in Europe does have a few amazing features which make the long overseas flight worthwhile. The Alps are stunning, with sweeping vistas that have no comparison in North America, and bluebird days are the norm rather than the exception.
The other thing Europe does much better than North America is Après Ski and that is the subject of today’s dispatch.
This weekend finds us at St. Anton, a massive resort town in North Eastern Austria. When discussing St. Anton no one talks about the snow, the terrain or the sheer size of the ski area (all of which are impressive). No, when talking about St. Anton people talk about one thing – Après.
The Après scene revolves around two bars, the Mooserwirt and the Krazy Kanguruh which, in the light of day, appear to be just old wooden buildings with cheap tables and Jaegermeister signs. However, at 3:30PM everyday they turn up the music and transform into Europe’s premier apres ski scene. Fire safety laws, “Serving it Right,” and personal space do not exist in St. Anton. People travel for hours to get to this party and they are getting into that bar, they are getting that beer and they are shooting those delicious Flying Moos.
We are squeezed into a small table in the centre of the Kanguruh. An hour in we are standing on our chairs dancing and singing as the DJ cycles through Europe’s après ski anthems. From sing-along songs ranging from German drinking songs to the North American classics (Bryan Adams would love to hear our rendition of Summer of ’69 today) to our personal favourite drinking song “I Got a Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas which seems to have transcended pop music based on our quick scan of the age range yelling “Maseltov” at the top of their lungs.
St. Anton is a “see-and-be-seen” après environment. You want to have the brightest ski suit, or better yet, no ski suit at all! Tutus, morph suits, bear costumes and everything in between are the preferred outfits in St. Anton. Everyone wants to get that elusive high five – the high of the approval of drunken strangers. Good hobbyists give out our high fives liberally – fat old man dancing like no one is watching: you get a high five. Little person dancing on a stool precariously balanced on a table so she is at eye level with the rest of her stagette: you get a high five. The atmosphere is electric, there is not an inch of free space in the bar or outside. It is just people, beer and the constant thump of ski boots smashing the floor in time with the music — oh did we mention it is also only 5:30?People are still streaming in and we find ourselves agreeing with Will.I.Am – tonight is gonna be a good night.
At 8PM we decide to move into town – darkness has fallen and the fact it is late March has become clear in the temperature. The Kanguruh and Mooserwirt have one more surprise for their guests. Step outside and look down. When we walked into the bar at 3:00 the bottom of the mountain looked close, even easy. But now, after five hours of dancing and innumerable flying moos it is intimidating. also, we are not the only people on the slopes trying to make our way to the bottom. Think of the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan, remove all the gore and replace the soundtrack with drunken laughter and that is the scene before us; dozens of skiers and boarders are essentially falling their way to the bottom of the hill. In Canada these bars would face constant lawsuits from the inevitable sprained knees and broken wrists (there are even a few ambulances helpfully waiting at the bottom). But in St. Anton the attitude is that you knew how far down it was before you went into the bar – i.e. it’s your problem!
So we go down into town, for dinner, more drinks in more bars and finally home to our hotel, now sharing high fives with each other and planning next year’s trip to St. Anton. We can’t do this every weekend (no one could manage that) but once a year, after a busy week, it feels like the best party in the world.
The HobbyistsCelebrating hobbies, obsessions, passions and the things that get you through (and distract you from) your work day.
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