Currently viewing the tag: "dispatches"

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)

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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)


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