I was reminded today of a moment of when I lived in Granada where I had an unexpectedly lovely experience, doing something as normal as missing a bus and catching a cab.
After mixing up bus times over the holiday weekend, I had to get a taxi from the centre of Granada to Güéjar Sierra (a village en route to the Sierra Nevada mountains) as I had promised to help a friend run her organic cherry jam stall at the Christmas mercadillo. However, it wouldn’t be just any type of taxi ride…
The driver was called José and in the next 25 minutes to Güéjar Sierra, I would find out a lot more about him and the fact that he was probably the happiest and most positive taxi driver that I’d ever met.
Like most people and certainly based on my previous experience, I’d been expecting to have to listen to a taxi driver go on about the state of the world and in Spain that would probably include the ‘crisis’, however I’d never anticipated meeting one who was so happy and positive about so many things in his life.
He started off with ‘Mi encanta mi trabajo, mi mujer, mi familia…’ And then moved on to saying ‘Es una joya…’ when talking about all the different places to visit in Andalucia and across Spain because he had lived all over the country as a former policeman – Cabo de Gata in Almería is his favourite place – ‘preciosa’. He even showed me his old ID card. Since he’d retired from the police force a couple of years ago, he had enjoyed meeting different people in his job as a taxi driver.
He also told me how Sevillanos think they’re superior to everybody else (which I used to hear a lot locally due to local rivalry), but they couldn’t help it and that Granadinos may be malafollá (local dialect for ‘bit of a grump’) at times but that their heart was in the right place when it mattered…
So the moral of this particular story I suppose is when you least expect it, in this case on the way to a Christmas market having got the bus times wrong, you meet someone like José, who is not only the complete antithesis of the stereotype of a Granadino but also that of a traditional taxi-driver. Either way, I know that for me at least, my day got much better when I met the happiest taxi driver that I’d ever met anywhere, in Granada.
So, I find myself this morning in a bar in Mojacar Playa with a beautiful view of the sea, with palm trees everywhere I look, the sun shining and blue skies and it’s all rather lovely.
It’s 11.20am and I’m here preparing classes and doing Spanish homework. I’d normally be listening to my own ‘soundtrack’ on headphones, but it’s so nice that even the trashy pop of the local radio station can’t spoil the moment. Or who knows, it may even be weirdly adding to it.
What this experience makes me think of is to not take things for granted. Thursday mornings in London were rarely like this. London doesn’t have the beach, sunshine and tranquility, although it does of course have countless other advantages. However, as many self-help books and the more recent ‘mindfulness’ movement suggest, I’m trying to focus more on being in the moment.
I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to living in Andalucia. Mrs Cortado and I have been here for almost 4 years and although I’m not expecting our life to disappear anytime soon, I often find myself under a strange type of self-imposed pressure to enjoy myself and make the most of being here as long as it lasts. Or maybe that’s just living wherever you are? Having said that, it is much easier to enjoy living the life we live, especially since we got a dog.
I’d never owned a dog before and never been particularly ‘dog-friendly’. However, we’ve had our rescue dog Grace for over a year and every day, she’s a lovely reminder of living in the moment. When we wake up, the most important thing in the history of everything is to go for a walk and sniff stuff.
And maybe, that’s it. The ‘answer’ if such a thing exists.
So, as Grace would no doubt recommend in her delightfully innocent, Taoist, Winnie the Pooh- type way, stop thinking about stuff, stop writing stuff, and get out there and sniff stuff.
I’ve heard a lot about the village of Sierra Alhamilla as friends have always sung its praises. It’s only a 40-minute drive from our village of Lucainena de las Torres, has been used as a location in the TV drama ‘Game of Thrones’ (see photo at the end of this post), is famed for its spa and last night, there was a flamenco festival organised by the local town hall, so I thought it was worth a trip. We were planning to leave in the car, but somebody was trying to scupper our plans to leave the village…
It’s been so hot over the last few weeks here in the south of Spain, even at night and so, I was more than happy to go to this concert which was held in the glorious gardens with views on to Almeria city itself. Spending time outside around midnight in the summer is understandably a popular pastime here and is one of my favourite things to do in Spain.
I’m not a connoisseur, by any stretch of the imagination, but I do enjoy going to see flamenco and went to a few when I lived in Granada, arguably its spiritual home. If you haven’t been by the way, visit Le Chien Andalou for fantastic performances in an intimate venue in the heart of Granada.
After eventually finding a parking space, we found seats in a beautiful setting surrounding by palm trees in the grounds of the Baños de Sierra Alhamilla and waited for things to get going, which they did at around 1030pm. By then we had also all been offered fans by the organisers which was a lovely and still quite necessary touch.
After the inevitable speeches by local dignitaries, which were mercifully not too long, singer Montse Cortés was on first with musicians on guitar, cajon (type of percussion box) and palmas (claps) and they launched into their set which was traditional and enjoyable, though at times, I admit I found her voice and the guitar a tad too abrasive for my taste.
After their show, there was an intermission where we could go for a drink and get some free soup! The event is called the ‘Caldo Minero’ flamenco festival. For those who may not know, ‘caldo’ is the Spanish word for stock, as used in cooking and ‘minero’ is Spanish for coalminer. The area used to be known for mining. And so, in addition to a much needed cold drink in the break, we could also get a small cup of Caldo Minero, hot coalminer’s soup. In August in the south of Spain. I’m going to ask some local friends to find out more, but if anybody knows the story as to why, I’d love to hear it.
This festival was offering different types of flamenco and although I’m a fan of flamenco singing and music, I’ve always thought that the dancing was just a part of it that I could take or leave. As a musician myself, I got the music elements, but I could never see why everybody raved about it so much. It had always left me cold. And then, the next group came on. With the musicians all in black and already performing with a professional subtlety lacking in the first group, you could already sense that this would be quite a different experience.
Performing the more serious ‘cante jondo’ flamenco style, the two singers (Javier Rivera and Rosario Amador) and guitarist (Miguel Pérez) were fantastic. Like many musicians in flamenco, they all had the necessary technical ability and incredible passion, yet they did it in such a beautifully understated way, which I found quite unusual when compared to previous flamenco performances I’ve seen. It wasn’t just about volume and power, you could also hear the gentle, melancholy yearning in how they played.
And then came the dancers. The incredible David Pérez (whose company it is) and the magnificent Maria José León appeared in fabulously flamboyant outfits and within seconds, the entire audience was transfixed. David and Maria José seemed so in sync with each other and I also loved how they incorporated the traditional flamenco shawl (mantón de manila), making it a fundmental element of the first song. I’d never seen that before. According to Antonio, a flamenco fan friend, he had noticed more of the ‘Stomp’-style rhythms had been included, even incorporating a bastón (walking stick) as a percussive instrument, which together with the intricate footwork, was mesmerising as an additional instrument.
For the first time, instead of the patronising insincerity of so-called professionals who turn up and seemingly phone it in , I was seeing how the passionate intensity and captivating sincerity of flamenco dancing could be integral to the performance and I loved it and I never thought I’d say that! Although the ‘stars’ of this particular set were the dancers, I loved the whole thing and how the musicians and dancers worked together. This company were on a different level to flamenco performances that I have seen before and if you haven’t seen them yet. I would highly recommend them! I’m strangely relieved that after more than 3 years living in Andalucia (two in the city of Granada and one here in Lucainena de las Torres) that I finally feel like I understand much more about flamenco and not just the music, but also the dancing.
It’s a wonderful thing that events like these are offered by the local town halls. In addition to annual ferias/fiestas, even the smallest Spanish villages have a lot of outdoor events over the summer including sporting events, processions, street theatre, concerts and outdoor cinema for everyone to enjoy. The ‘Caldo Minero flamenco festival’ has taken place every 2 years since 1990 and long may it continue. I look forward to going back to Sierra Alhamilla for the spa, to have a look around the village and also of course, to the next Caldo Minero!
I’d always wanted to visit California. Los Angeles, Big Sur and Venice Beach for example, were all places I’d seen or heard in films, TV and music and they always seemed so exotic.
From the natural marvels of Yosemite and Sequoia, our trip was now taking us to ones of a different kind on the West Coast. We first headed to Monterey where we walked along Cannery Row, the old fishing area which has been prettified, but seemed a tad soulless and then drove to the lovely Pacific Grove where we just strolled along the ruggedly beautiful coastline.
Later that evening, we popped into the delightful Carmel, which for somewhere so small, seemed to have an inordinate number of pricey shops. After dinner in a cute, little Italian restaurant we found, we thought we’d have dessert elsewhere and came across a local bakery which was closing, but we managed to persuade the assistant working there to sell us a few cakes which hit the spot.
And then, the day after, appropriately armed with a Beach Boys playlist (and a little bit of Johnny Cash too as I had really got into his music in Nashville), we set off on a gloriously sunny day down the coast along Big Sur, which really was as incredible as we thought it would be.
We were heading towards our next stop at Pismo Beach, which was an excellent point to visit the nearby and magnificently strange Hearst Castle where we saw an eclectic mix of things including an absurdly opulent blue indoor pool with real gold tiles, as well as a few zebras in the grounds. We even managed to see a few elephant seals on the beach nearby.
The next day was our 9th wedding anniversary and we were going to be celebrating it with some American friends who we had first met in Granada, Spain where we were living at the time and lived in San Luis Obispo further down the coast. Oddly enough, we ended up going to a restaurant appropriately called Granada. We had had a lovely meal and then, on our way back after the meal, we got our first American ticket for parking the car facing the wrong direction, which we didn’t even know was a thing! Another experience for the list…
The next day, we headed to Solvang, a slightly strange and sweet, seemingly Danish village in the middle of American wine country which even has its own windmill!
On the way down the coast to Los Angeles, we stopped off at Santa Barbara, one of the many places referenced in American TV shows and films and although Mrs Cortado really liked the feel of the place, other than the low-rise architecture which is very common on this part of the country, it just seemed full of shops and little else to me.
We rented an apartment in Marina Del Rey for a few days as our base for visiting LA. One of the first things we did was to get a sightseeing bus to take us around the city so we could get our bearings, as LA is even bigger than we had imagined.
I was surprised at how low-rise the city was. American cities we had seen thus far had been full of skyscrapers of offices and apartments, but one of the charming elements of LA is that this hasn’t happened. However, the city is an enormous sprawl where getting stuck in heavy traffic is the norm, even if you have 6-lane highways.
One sad reality we encountered was one morning while popping out for coffee, seeing the exit to our apartment building had been blocked due to a fatal shooting in the car park overnight. Like all big cities across the world, crime is a reality in certain areas, however this was our first experience of gun crime in the US.
On a lighter note, Mrs Cortado has always been a fan of Disney and her mother has always wanted to see the Disney parade, so Mrs Cortado’s parents came out for a few days to visit and my mother-in-law had the time of her life at the parade, while my father-in-law and I strolled around the pretty back streets of Little Venice stopping off at different coffee shops on the way. I really enjoyed hanging out in Little Venice. It has an unusual bohemian feel, but also a spectacular kind of light, especially as the sun sets. I recently watched ‘Californication’ and ‘Flaked’ where the neighbourhood is the backdrop for the TV shows, so I could see the area again and it was nice to see that same light and atmosphere coming across in the programmes.
Another day, we drove along the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu and were quite surprised to see how ’normal’ and un-film-starry this area was. Though I think the really big houses were safely ensconced elsewhere far away from the main road and coast. After a lovely lunch at a restaurant on the beach, we then headed into the beautiful Santa Monica mountain reserve.
Music & Film
We had now been on the road for several weeks and had had an incredible time, but we had also done quite a lot and so it was wonderful, to find a spot on Venice Beach one morning to sit down and just take it all in. Everything we had seen and experienced so far, including the fact that we were in LA (man) and especially, Venice Beach which I had always heard so much about through music and film and was also where Jim Morrison lived when The Doors first got together. I’m a big Doors fan. I also really enjoyed bumping into some of the street art in Little Venice.
Ever since watching ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ with James Dean when I was a teenager, Griffith Observatory has also always been on my list of places to visit – for those who don’t know, there are a few key scenes in the film located there. Having lived in Greenwich before, I had already been lucky enough to see a magnificent observatory, however the views of the city from here, including the Hollywood sign, were spectacular.
As a big music fan, I had really wanted to see a gig while in LA as there were so many well-known venues which had hosted legendary bands over the years and one of these was the Troubadour. A small venue which had hosted a wide variety of artists over the years including Elton John, Buffalo Springfield, James Taylor, Guns & Roses, Tom Waits and Radiohead. We had got tickets to see John Grant who happened to be in town when we were. Although it ended up being quite expensive in that although the gig tickets were only around $60 in total, the taxi fare there and back was around $100! Fortunately, we are big John Grant fans and it was a fabulous gig in a legendary venue, so another wonderful experience on our trip.
One of the last stops we made was in Laurel Canyon which was renowned for being the neighbourhood where Joni Mitchell, the Byrds and countless other singer-songwriters and bands from the late 60s made music and lived in (apparent) peace, love and harmony in the summer of love in 1967. As with Ashbury Haights in San Francisco, my expectations were impossibly high and it obviously wouldn’t be the same these days, but part of me was still hoping to somehow absorb this late-60s vibe through some kind of hippie-flower-power-like osmosis just by driving through the neighbourhood. I don’t think Mrs Cortado was as interested or as hopeful.
Spending time in LA was sometimes like being in New York in that you were already familiar with places through TV, film and music. We loved visiting LA, but other than individual moments such as the Troubadour gig, hanging out in Little Venice and Disney, we didn’t really connect with the city as a whole as much as we had with previous cities such as New York, Chicago and Seattle.
So, after a few days here, we were off again. We dropped off the in-laws at LAX airport so they could go back to England and then, we headed off to our next stop – Santa Fe – where we would be beginning the southern leg of the trip. Yet another one which we had been really looking forward to…
We were looking forward to visiting California for the first time and it was only a short flight from Portland from where we’d just had a fabulous time to get to our first stop, San Francisco.
We spent time experiencing a few interesting things here including the Italian American cinema exhibition, the annual Italian Heritage parade in Little Italy, Ashbury Haights, Gott’s restaurantin the Ferry Building, Fleet Weekwith a flying display from the Blue Angels (the US equivalent of the English Red Arrows), the pretty Painted Ladies line of houses and the famous gay rights centre of the USA that is the Castro district (where I also found a plaque dedicated toFrancisco Federico Lorca, the world-renowned gay Spanish playwright from Granada who was killed in the Spanish Civil War). We also got one of those lovely old trolley buses a couple of times, but regardless of how pretty your mode of transport, rush hour is the same not so pleasant experience in every country.
In addition to walking a lot around town, we did the double-decker sightseeing bus tour which included a glorious sunset from the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the highlights of our visit here. Another for me was the fascinating walking tour of the Tenderloin district, 398 Eddy St. / Leavenworth (Tue-Sun 10am-5pm) where I had a personal tour of the area which is now quite rundown in places and yet, has an incredible musical and social history giving an interesting insight into the city.
The AirBnB where we were staying was just around the corner from Mission Street where we had amazing (and cheap) tacos and burritos (no rice, so not as heavy) at the unassuming and always incredibly busyLa Taquería.
And after that, a couple of blocks away, we came across a Mexican bar (whose name escapes me) where we had a few margaritas while watching a World Cup qualifying football match between Mexico and the USA. Fab night out! Although I love doing research for trips, some of the best nights happen when you don’t plan anything or can’t even find what you were looking for!
On a more serious note, although we had seen homeless people on the streets of other American cities we had been to, the problem seemed far greater in San Francisco, but like all cities, San Francisco is doing its best to help them off the streets by working together with the local communities.
Although San Francisco is very much a city, one of the benefits of its location is Californian wine and a trip to the Napa Valley had to be done, especially as I’m a huge fan of the film ‘Sideways’, however we chose to simply drive through the countryside to appreciate the stunning views en route.
We’d heard good things about Muir Beach just outside the city, so we drove there and it really was something else. Just a beach, sea and not many people. Although, perhaps again, it was a nice antidote to the city experience of the previous few days.
Walking around this city was an odd experience as even after a few days, although it had lots of interesting places to visit, unlike some other places we had visited on the trip such as Portland, Chicago, Seattle and Provincetown, neither I nor Mrs Cortado found we had really connected with the city. After only a month on the road, it couldn’t yet be travel fatigue, so what was it?
Like many places we had planned to visit on this trip, San Francisco was yet another place we had always wanted to see, however it was the first to disappoint, although we couldn’t quite put our finger on why. So, we may just have to go back another time to see what we missed…
Mrs Cortado and I had included Las Vegas on our trip out of curiosity and also as it was perfectly located to visit the Grand Canyon, which ended up being one of the highlights of the entire trip. To add to the kitsch Vegas element too, we also decided to stay at the Trump Tower hotel for a night. Note that this trip was made Sept-Dec 2015 before the joy we all currently share that is the Trump presidency. In fact, when we were in Vegas, Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were still fighting it out in a TV debate for the Democratic nomination.
So, what’s Vegas like? It’s everything you could imagine. Busy, loud, kitsch, commercial and not somewhere I’d visit again, but for a couple of nights, it was a wonderful experience. Highlights in Las Vegas for us included cocktails with an ‘in-the-know’ food blogger friend, the ultra kitsch environment and the cheesy and spectacular sound/light show of the Hotel Bellagio and the madness of Fremont Street.
Although expensive, it’s also absolutely worth taking the 1-hour helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon as the sheer scale was like nothing we’d previously seen. In addition to this, other favourites here were the incredible Neon Museumand the staggering feat of engineering that is theHoover Dam. Las Vegas is inevitably a bit mad and it’s heaven, hell or maybe both depending on your persuasion, but it’s definitely worth a visit to make your own mind up and especially for the astonishing astonishing natural beauty that is not that far away.
Our next stage of the trip was the perfect antidote to the superficial and artificial excess of Las Vegas. We would be driving through a variety of types of nature en route to our next stop in Mammoth Lakes on the west side of Yosemite National Park.
And soon, we were driving down Badwater Road in Death Valley towards the Badwater Basin where we saw a family of 4 coyotes hanging around (as you do in Death Valley). I’d never heard of the Valley Of Fire before but as you travel through, the colours of the surrounding rocks are so beautifully unusual that it almost feels like the set of a film set on another planet.
We then had to take a detour through Yosemite as the main road was closed and happily came across Mono Lake, a beautiful saltwater marsh/lake with stalagmites which again were reminiscent of some alternative planetary dimension. It was all such a welcome relief to the chaos of Vegas. And then after much looking around, we arrived in Mammoth Lakes.
The morning after we had breakfast of waffles and coffee (one of many but we never got bored of it) in The Stove local diner in Mammoth Lakes village followed by a lovely drive through the north of Yosemite towards Mariposa, which is a delightful one-street village with a very small town America feel. Our next plan was to visit Sequoia National Park to go to Grant Grove to see the biggest tree in the world – General Sherman, which as you’d imagine, was enormous.
Although I’m a townie, I enjoyed the nature elements of this trip and was surprised at how beautifully stark and impressive some of these places could be. But now it was time to move on to the delights of the west coast including Big Sur, which was another one of those places I’d always wanted to see.
I’m sitting on a lovely, ever-so-slightly battered brown sofa in my favourite bar (Cafe Cyrano) in Almería, my recently adopted ‘big city’, listening to my new favourite album (‘Hey Mr Ferryman’ by Mark Eitzel) with a cortado coffee and an orange juice.
I’ve just put my car in for a service. Not a big deal for most people, but having never owned a car until recently, it feels like a strangely grown up thing to be doing. I dropped the car off at 9.30am and am told it will be 3 hours, so I’ve popped into the city to mooch around and am really enjoying it as it’s not something I can really do in the village where I now live.
I’ve been walking around for a while enjoying the buzzy morning atmosphere of a working day here. As with many cities, there are lots of ‘things to do’ here, some of which I’ve done and others that I will do, but as is often the case, I find myself doing a similar thing ie ‘not very much’ to some people.
But the joy I get from simply sitting in a bar with a coffee, listening to music on headphones, writing, reading and reflecting on nothing in particular is immeasurable.
Some people these days might call this being mindful. I don’t know why doing this works for me and maybe it’s best I don’t know, so in the meantime, I’ll just enjoy the positive and calming energy it gives me.
After only a couple of weeks on the road, we had already covered a fair bit of the East Coast – read 3 months On The Road Pt2.
The long train ride
The next stage of our trip was a much anticipated 3-day train from Chicago to Seattle incorporating the wide open spaces of states such as Montana, North Dakota and Idaho among other places. We had been looking forward to this part of the trip as we’d never taken a long train journey before.
Our train to Seattle was old, but more in a ‘hasn’t-been-modernised-in-years’ as opposed to any kind of romantic historical ‘Orient Express’ way, but having said that, the views from the train were incredible. Vast open spaces for miles and miles, with only the occasional one-horse-town and collection of oil fields punctuating the flatness of the barren landscapes. Of course, we knew that North America was big, but the endless open spaces made us realise the sheer scale.
As a music fan and obsessive fan of the American TV sitcom ‘Frasier’, Seattle had been one of my top five list of places to visit on this trip. Of course, I knew that the show had been filmed in a studio in LA, but it was fictitiously based in Seattle and so, I perhaps oddly felt I had got to know the city including iconic locations places such as the Space Needle. We also had friends who had moved there in recent years, so we had even more reason.
We were in town for a few days and were determined to make the most of it, so we visited Pike Street Market, went on the Underground Touraround Pioneer Square, took a lovely boat ride around Elliot Bay, travelled on the magnificent Monorail to see the equally impressive Space Needle surrounded by the beautifully bizarre Chihuly glass flower exhibits and also went to see one of our favourite bands, Thievery Corporation in concert. One morning, I even walked all the way to the Elliott Bay Cafe, which was apparently the inspiration for the cafe used in Frasier. Of course, it was nothing like I had expected as it had recently been modernised, but I felt a fan-like sense of achievement having visited nevertheless.
While Mrs Cortado went shopping one afternoon, I also visited the fascinating Wing Luke museum in Chinatown which focused on the the Asian Pacific Islander American experience in Seattle and the West Coast. Sadly, I missed the Bruce Lee exhibit which was starting the week after, but it was so interesting having a look around the former accommodation and even the grocery store that the newly arrived immigrants would have used. I then had some Hell Ramen fromSamurai Noodlesand at that moment, I was somehow struck by a moment of gratefulness. So much so that I even posted something on Facebook about how grateful I was with life at that moment in time and genuinely felt that if I’d been a dog, I’d have been wagging my tail like a very waggy taily thing. I was walking around feeling happy and grateful for every moment of every day. Not just being in Seattle, but also being with Mrs Cortado and life in general. It’s been nice being reminded of that while writing this post.
You might have figured out by now that I absolutely loved Seattle finding it among many other things, laid-back, bohemian, cultural, open-minded with an interesting food and cafe culture. It was even sunny when we were there, though I’m led to believe that is quite unusual. One of the places I’d wanted to visit my entire life had surpassed all expectations. Where next?
Our trip next took us to Vancouver. Another one of those places that I’d always wanted to visit and fortunately, again we had a friend there with whom I’d be reunited after 15 years since she’d moved to Canada. One of the highlights of our time here was the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Gardenwhich was a such a beautiful example of tranquility. It was delightful wandering around it absorbing its culture, history and sense of peace.
Other highlights in Vancouver included a lovely day driving to Whistler on Highway 99 with stupendous views of the Pacific and the stunning Porteau Cove on the way back. It was fun watching the BMXers riding down what would normally be the ski slope and it was so pretty seeing the gorgeous autumn colours of the trees as we went past. Another highlight was starting the day with a fabulous spicy chicken breakfast burrito at JJ Bean followed by a glorious drive through Stanley Park and ending with a romantic walk along the seawall catching the sunset.
One of the things I loved about 3-month trip in general was being able to meet up with people we knew en route. It gave that part of the trip a much more personal feel getting us to see places where we may not have otherwise visited from the perspective of our friends, who were now ‘locals’. Although I hadn’t seen Megan in the 15 years since she’d moved to Canada, visiting her and her family was just like old times, as if we’d just seen each other yesterday.
Okay, this is starting to sound repetitive, but it’s true, Portland was another place I had always wanted to visit. As a music fan and foodie, I’d always heard so many good things that I managed to persuade Mrs Cortado to include Portland on our itinerary.
We found a lovely AirBnB in one of the lovely tree-lined suburban streets and as this city isn’t that big, we were only a short bus or cab ride to the centre. Although we stayed in a variety of hotels and AirBnBs on our trip, staying in an AirBnB often added to the experience as you felt more like you were actually living there for a while as opposed to simply visiting. I even found a favourite coffee bar, the Westside branch of Heartwhich I visited each morning.
Although we’d been lucky with the weather in Seattle, our luck ran out in Portland on one particular day, however we then ended up going to a triple bill and having lunch at the fabulous Living Room cinema. It felt like a particularly Portland-type of day.
Portland is such a walkable city that when the sun did decide to make an appearance, we wandered around enjoying the quirky architecture and chilled ambience of this tranquil city. I even saw the singer from the Dandy Warholsin a cafe from the bus on my way home one night and as a music fan, that made my day.
Food is a big thing in Portland and food trucks are really popular. I’d planned to visit a highly recommended Korean truck, but on the day we went, they weren’t quite ready and so we ended up having some really good noodles from another truck just around the corner.
Not far from where we stayed we found a fantastic bar/restaurant called Levant on E Burnside which offered really good hummus and made whatever cocktails you asked for. Donuts seem to be a very big thing here too, so we thought we’d go to one of the most well-known ‘gourmet donut’ shopsBlue Star Donuts where we tried a handful of their product. Well, somebody has to…Highly recommended, although I wasn’t too sure about the marionberry and pepper one.
We loved visiting Seattle, Vancouver and Portland on this leg of the trip and again, although we enjoyed all the wonderful things they had to offer, I made a list of all the places that we wanted /should visit based on online recommendations (and sometimes we even used it), but in the end, our favourite thing was still to wander around and see what we bump into on the way.
So, from the north-west, we were now due to head south to California. San Francisco, LA, Big Sur. And guess what? I’d always wanted to go there too…
After only a week on the road in the USA, we’d already had a fantastic time visiting lots of places including Vermont, Massachusetts and Cape Cod. Read 3 Months On The Road Part One. After a wonderful few days on Martha’s Vineyard, we then headed for the mainland to drive along the East Coast, see friends in New York and then end this stage of the trip with some time in Chicago.
PROVIDENCE Our first stop was the town of Providence, Rhode Island. Mrs Cortado had been looking forward to coming here as the city still has its original 17th century town plan and for such an architectural geek, she loved walking through architectural history, especially around Brown University and being able to see the evolution of houses from clapboard to classical grandeur. And although we had torrential rain for most of our time here, it gave the city an eerily Gothic ambience which made it even more interesting.
After we’d explored for a while, I was soon looking forward to trying Korean food for the first time. I’d heard about Suralocated on Westminster Street in the Old Town centre, which fortunately was just around the corner from where we were staying and was fantastic. Admittedly having never had Korean food before, I have no reference points, but the pork bulgogi that I had was delicious with a lovely spicy kick. We also had our first experience of valet parking when we stayed on bunk beds (which neither of us had done since we were children) at the delightfully funky Dean Hotelon Fountain Street.
NEWPORT Our next hotel was in New Haven and so on the way, we stopped off at a couple of places. Like Providence, Newport was very much on Mrs Cortado’s list due to its plethora of 19th century mansions. Our afternoon went from the humble Arts & Crafts Isaac Bell houseto the Kardashian-esque opulence of the Van der Bilt mansion ‘The Breakers’ and although I only saw two of the four that Mrs C saw, I can highly recommend a visit here if you are interested in architecture.
MYSTIC We then took the 95 south to hang out in the pretty village of Mystic which fortuitously was hosting a farmer’s market/food festival along the riverside. And this time, although there was no pizza (if you’ve seen the film), we did have a seriously good burger.
NEW HAVEN After a long day driving and visiting Newport and Mystic, we really enjoyed walking around the almost village-like tranquility of New Haven. Most famous for Yale University, this lovely town has a strangely familiar feel, no doubt brought about by the old English college style architecture of the colleges at Yale. We also found a lovely little coffee shop and vegetarian restaurant Claire’s Corner Copia on Chapel Street which I’d highly recommend.
And then we headed for New York City.
NEW YORK Although Mrs Cortado and I have been to New York a few times already, it is still somewhere that we absolutely love visiting. Seeing old friends again is always nice and adds a more personal twist to our trips, however New York always has something new to offer no matter how much time you spend there. We’d seen the ‘usual’ sights on the tourist trail in the past, so this time just wanted to wander around a few new areas mixed in with some old favourites.
Ellis Island There are many places that Mrs Cortado and I have always wanted to visit and one of the lovely things about this trip is that we got the chance to see many of them. One of the places for me was Ellis Island and so, one beautiful crisp September morning, I went down to Battery Park to get the 8.30am Statue Cruises ferrywhich took me past the Statue of Liberty to Ellis Island itself, which truly blew me away and was one of the highlights of the entire three-month trip.
Immigration For me, simply spending some time sitting down and contemplating in the Immigration Museum and the Great Hallwhere all immigrants would have been admitted or even refused entry gave me some insight into how things would have been at that time. And what’s more, as immigration is often seen as a negative factor in modern society, it was a strong reminder of how positive a contribution it can make. Especially when, according to the Ellis Island website, over 40% of the U.S. population descend from the 17 million immigrants that passed through Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954. A truly humbling experience…
Shakshuka One of my favourite discoveries on this trip to NYC was the Shuka Truck. I’d first heard of shakshukas on Yotam Ottolenghi’s ‘Mediterranean Feast’ TV programme. They are a mix of poached eggs with tomatoes, chillis, peppers and spices – a kind of Middle Eastern huevos rancheros. I’d found out about the Shuka Truck on Twitter through which they posted their daily whereabouts in the city. For only a few dollars, sitting in the park with the sun shining and a shakshuka for lunch. Nice! I was really starting to enjoy food trucks and the new food opportunities in general on this trip.
Other thingswe loved seeing and doing included:
wandering through Central Park (always a favourite thing to do)
No matter how many times we go, New York is still an amazing city to visit. However, after a week there it was time to move on and we had a flight to catch.
ZIONSVILLE & INDIANAPOLIS We were going to stay with an old university friend who lived in a small town called Zionsville, just outside Indianapolis. After lots of reminiscing about university days, we went to the track in Indianapolis where they hold the legendary Indy 500 Indy Car races. We then had a fantastic evening in Zionsville where we saw chipmunks for the first time, had our first evening eating hot wings in a ‘proper’ American sports bar with wall-to-wall TV screens showing different sports and we even got carded which has not happened to me in two decades!
What more could you ask for?
It sadly transpired that I had not turned into a teenager overnight, but that this bar carded everybody, even the 60-something-looking guy who went in before us. Or maybe he was just a very old looking 21 year old. We had a fantastic evening in this small town where although technically there was little to ‘do’ as a visitor, if you are in a bar with a few drinks and some good friends, what more could you ask for? Another highlight.
CHICAGO The following morning, we got the Greyhound bus to Chicago where we would be staying for five days. If you’ve read Part One of this series of posts, you’ll know that until this trip, I’d only visted New York on previous trips to the US and so, Chicago was going to be my next ‘big city’ and I was really looking forward to it.
Beachy On my first day, I was surprised by Chicago and found it to be much more more laidback than New York and it was another wonderful place to walk around. With the huge Lake Michigan alongside and the Chicago river running through the city, I had no idea it would be as relaxed as it was and on Lakeshore Drive you have a a beach, rollerbladers, cyclists, promenade and sunshine – so far, Chicago was not remotely as urban as I’d expected.
Seniorfest While Mrs Cortado went to the Art Institte of Chicago, I wandered through Millenium Park to see where the music was coming from – I’m a musician and a big music fan – and I bumped into Seniorfest. Hundreds of pensioners were listening and watching a concert including versions of classics such as ‘Sweet Caroline’ and amusingly, ‘Mrs Robinson’. A festival to celebrate being older. It was lovely! One sprightly young man was on stage at one point introducing the next performer and said “I’m 77 and I dance like heaven” and proceeded to do just that along with a whole group of ladies and gentlemen of a certain age. Transport to and from the event was on local school buses which was a nice touch too.
Food What about the food? Well, this may be heresy, but I must admit I wasn’t that impressed with one of the most famous dishes on offer in the Windy City – the world-famous Chicago pizza pie. I’ll try pretty much anything once. And I did here. But pizzas should be thin crust. End of story. No filled crust. No deep pan. And although I had wanted to try it out as we were in town, I’m afraid, definitely no pie. But that’s another reason to travel, to try new things. Sometimes, you’ll love it and others, maybe not. But we loved Al’s Italian Beef and Portillo’shot dogs!
Architecture Mrs Cortado and I are both architecture fans (though she is more of an academic architecture/design geek) and on this trip we had already seen quite a few grand houses, however one of the great things Chicago offers is theChicago Architecture Foundation’s boat ridewhere you not only get an excellent audio, but you also get to see some incredible buildings from the water as you travel through on the river. And if you need a bit more architecture in your life, away from the centre on the University of Chicago campus, it’s also definitely worth visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s stunning Robie House.
Next stop Already three weeks into our three-month trip, we had taken planes, automobiles and a Greyhound bus around the north-eastern side of the States and now, from the monumental grandeur of Union Station (which is also definitely worth a visit), we were going to take a 3-day train ride going west to Seattle…
One year ago today (3 September), we flew to Boston to begin our adventure. I can’t believe it’s taken me a year to write this series of posts, but it feels like the rime is right and it has also been great fun reliving the experience and sharing the (often differing) memories with Mrs Cortado.
So, executive decisions were made (often over cocktails) throughout the trip about where to go, how long to stay and what to see until we had a plan which was incredibly exciting. We’d only ever been to New York together before, so we were looking forward to seeing what the rest of this fascinating country was all about.
Boston The first few days of this kind of trip were always going to be strange as we adjusted to being on this adventure. We were staying for a few days in the wonderful Ames Hotel, the city’s first skyscraper, to get the ball rolling and the hotel’s central location was ideal as Boston is such a walkable city.
Labour Day was coming up soon and so there was a lot going on while we were there including a fantastic breakdancing display by some local guys outside Faneuil Hall, a beautiful 18th century building next to which you will also find Quincey Market, one of the better known places for food stalls in the city. Given the holiday atmosphere, there was also a fantastic fireworks display across Boston Harbour.
In addition to San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver, Boston was one of the iconic cities I had always wanted to visit and one of the reasons was the TV show ‘Cheers’ which I had grown up with. Yes, of course, it’s a tourist trap, but one of the things that Mrs Cortado and I had decided was that we were going to embrace our status as tourists and do the things we had always wanted to do and see.
Walking through this city on a crisp, sunny morning was a lovely thing to do. We enjoyed wandering through the old streets of the Beacon Hill district with its antique shops and brunch opportunities, such as at the incredibly popular Paramount restaurant where we had our first blueberry pancakes of the trip. We always knew that food was going to be an important part of this adventure!
We went to the Bull & Finch, the bar on which ‘Cheers’ had been based and had some ‘world-famous’ Boston clam chowder surrounded by memorabilia. Little did we know that we were going to see a lot of ‘world-famous’ clam chowder and Boston baked beans in bars and restaurants all over the city.
One morning we walked through the Back Bay area where hoards of students were moving into Boston University accommodation. Reminiscent of an autumn scene in New York’s Greenwich Village, we soon found ourselves on lovely Tremont St with its independent shops and cafes and lovely old buildings. The next day we headed over to Little Italy which was absolutely rammed with Labour Day weekend crowds and unfortunately had some dreadful service at a restaurant there, but that’s going to happen from time to time I suppose. However we then got to visit the Paul Revere House round the corner on North Street which more than made up for it.
Harvard University and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) are both based in Cambridge just over the bridge from Boston, so we thought we’d take a walk over to see what it was like. Although we’d never been there before, it was strangely familiar being in Cambridge and especially around the university area as the buildings are so similar to their English counterparts.
We stopped en route for a coffee and found the only place in a city which didn’t offer wi-fi and not because they didn’t have it, but because it was their policy to encourage a more social environment for their customers. It was the first of a few places like this that we would see. For example, in San Francisco a few weeks later, we would come across a coffee house which did not sell espresso, cappuccinos and the ‘usual’ coffee fare, but only ‘pour over’ coffee. It was like the trendier coffee places were going ‘old-school’ by going back to filters.
Boston is a small city with incredibly friendly people and lots to experience and although it may not have been the big city experience that we were expecting, it was an excellent first stop on our trip.
Vermont & New Hampshire After hiring the first of many cars, we stopped off for petrol, coffee and doughnuts (there seems to be little else on offer for breakfast when you’re on the road) at a station and had our first amusing experience where we were divided by a common language. At the shop there, I asked for coffee with hot milk on the side, but the waitress didn’t seem to understand me. I’m from the south of England between London and Oxford, so have quite a neutral accent, but it wasn’t until I had repeated myself three times and the girl’s supervisor translated ‘hOt’ to ‘hAHt’ that we were served! The joys of travel…
One of the reasons we chose to start the trip on the East Coast was so that we could drive through the gorgeous autumn countryside in Vermont and New Hampshire. Sometimes, visiting places you have only previously seen in TV or films or read about in books really can surpass your expectations.
As well as what must have been a gazillion trees that we saw, we stopped off at Polly’s Pancake Parlor (Sugar Hill, NH) for some of their inevitably world-famous maple syrup and visited the Brick Store, the oldest General Store in the USA in Bath, NH situated next to a lovely covered wooden bridge from 1832.
We passed through Woodstock, VT which was a very pretty village, though not the location of the (in)famous hippy festival. And of course as we were driving though the miles and miles of beautiful scenery brimming with trees, nature and old white churches, we had to listen to a local AOR Rock FM radio station which played bands like the Eagles, Journey and REO Speedwagon making the driving more fun as we would inevitably sing along.
Susie and Jack are retired local schoolteachers who rent out a lovely apartment next to their house where they have lived since 1968 though the house itself was built in the 1830s. Jack smiled when I asked him for a key to the apartment saying that keys were not necessary (I guess we were not in the big city any more). Being in Saxton’s River was like one big film moment in that we were in this pretty village surrounded by nature while having dinner that evening on the front porch at the delightfully traditional Saxton’s River Inn on Main Street.
“People come here for a holiday and are cured of something they didn’t know they had with a hug, listening and conversation” Susie & Jack
Cape Cod After a 4-hour drive, our next stop was Cape Cod, MA. As luck would have it, given the end of the holiday weekend, thousands of cars were in queues leaving, so we just waltzed in on an almost empty road which was fun as well as a relief. En route, we had lunch in Falmouth, a cute little place, reminiscent of Twickenham Green in London, although with a couple on the porch of their white wooden house with accompanying stars and stripes, you knew you were in the USA.
One of the biggest surprises of the trip for me was Provincetown, so much so that I’m currently writing a separate post about this place I love. One reason I liked it so much is because we met up with some New York-based friends who we hadn’t seen in a long time. It was so easy seeing them again, as if we had just seen them the day before. It was a nice reminder that although places are important, the most important and most enjoyable factor is the people that we meet on the road. Provincetown is a charming place by the sea and a mecca for artists and gay people, especially in the summer with beaches, bars and shops proudly displaying rainbow flags.
A girl from a bar in Cambridge, MA had recommended trying brussels sprouts in Provincetown , so we thought we’d give it a go. World-famous lobster rolls in a toasted brioche were also on the menu, so we headed to The Canteen to see what all the fuss was about. And what do you know?! If you chargrill brussels sprouts, add fish sauce, chillis and garlic, you get a fantastic dish. Really. Brussels sprouts. Who’d have thought?
We stayed at the lovely Revere House just a stone’s throw from the beach. Provincetown is relaxed with culture, good food, sea, sunshine, clapboard architecture, fiercely independent local businesses and an attractive quirkiness. Without doubt, one of my most favourite places on the entire 3-month trip.
Then we took our time driving down through Cape Cod passing by the lighthouses and beaches in order to get the ferry from Wood’s Hole to Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard.
Martha’s Vineyard On arrival, we drove to the other side of the island to Aquinnah restaurant and Native American cultural centre and also visited the famous Gay Head lighthouse point. On the way we passed the wonderfully named Lobsterville Rd.
If you’re familiar with Cornwall in England, then that gives you an idea of what Martha’s Vineyard is like. Edgartown and Vineyard Haven are pretty, chocolate-box-type villages with an abundance of old-world American charm. We even saw a skunk which is a big deal for a townie like myself.
Mrs Cortado and I shared a lovely moment listening to the Grease soundtrack, one of my American reference points growing up, while we were surrounded by clapboard houses, big cars and American-ness after having just been to the Edgartown Diner on Main Street.
Everybody we had encountered so far had been incredibly polite, helpful and delightfully chatty. A bit strange for someone who has lived in London for 20 years where that really doesn’t happen very often.