A Perfect Day in San Sebastian – Part 2

“Siesta” marks a huge split in the day in Spain.  I have been told that for those Spaniards in the corporate world, it is a thing of the past.  However, in the small hill towns of La Rioja and even the winding back streets of “La Parte Vieja” of San Sebastian, it is still very much a part of daily life.  Therefore, we planned our day to deflect the gap that is sometimes left by siesta in order to pack as much into our last Sunday in Spain.  (This article is part two of the article that began here.)

Stop 5: Ostertz – Coffee and Sherry and Regional Education

After a big morning and early afternoon of feasting, some good digestion was in order.  Mrs. NH and I settled on a small, busy cafe/bar right along the waterfront on the opposite side of La Concha Bay – facing the new town of San Sebastian.  We weren’t the only family that sought shaded refuge and something to sip on for continued strength.  After our coffees, I opted for a nice fino Sherry and Mrs. NH suggested that I, “Ask if they can make me a rebujito!”  Discovered while touring Jerez a few years back, a rebujito is a drink that consists of Sprite or some kind of bubbly lemon drink mixed with fino Sherry.  I prefer not to pollute my fino with anything.  However, Mrs. NH doesn’t ask for much so the least I could do is ask at the bar keep.  My inquiry was met with incredulity from the bartender and eye rolls and independent commentary from another patron inside the bar.  “This isn’t Andalucía,” he offered.  Luckily, I had ordered my fino puro first and was able to believably pass off my request for what it was – a request from my wife.  When I returned to the table with a fino and a cerveza clara, I marveled with my wife about how truly regional Spanish food and drink is.  I also relayed the fact that despite almost being laughed out of the bar for my order, both bartender and patron were curious to know the exact ingredients and proportions of a proper rebujito.  The best part, they asked the American!

Stop 6: Merry Go Round and Potato Chips

As a father, I’ve seen a lot of playgrounds in a lot of towns in a lot of countries.  If you have kids of your own, you know how it is.  If they see a playground, they want to stop.  Same goes with merry go rounds.  My girls are good travelers so if there is time in the day,  I don’t mind spending a bit of it doing things they like.  I feel it ads harmony to the overall trip experience (as well as the obvious “carrot” for good behavior).  So, kid fun time completed, we proceeded to the paved mosaic waterfront of San Sebastian.  On the way we saw a man selling 1.50 euro bags of potato chips and did not waste any time in forking over our coin for a modest bag.  The reason we shelled out almost $2.25 for a small bag of chips?  Experience.  Spanish potato chips can be really tasty – like the ones sold in La Plaza del Salvador in Sevilla.  The ones in San Sebastian were no exception.  Thick cut, salty, slightly greasy and really satisfying.  Between that and the sunset walk along the ocean, it was the perfect primer to an evening of tapas and delightful Spanish mayhem.

Stop 7: Ormazabal

Part of Little NH’s fascination with Spain comes from a part of the Spanish tapas bar culture that seems entirely counter to everything she has been taught about cleanliness.  At first, she was terrified to toss a used napkin on the floor of Spanish a tapas bar.  However, by the end of the trip, she was asking, “Daddy, are you done with your napkin?  When you are, give it to me so I can throw it on the floor.”  When in Spain…, right?

For our second to last tapas stop of the evening, we hit Ormazabal for a round of family favorites from our last several days in Spain.  The friendly folks behind the counter made a couple recommendations and even delivered the items right to our table – and we had a great time bantering in English, Spanish and sorta-French with them.  Our orders consisted of some of the best food we had eaten in Spain and included: meatballs (albondigas), spinach croquetas, peppers stuffed with bacalao, octopus in its ink and beef cheeks.  Having settled into a comfortable table in the back with room for the stroller (which at this point in the trip resembled more of a covered wagon), we decided to stay put and made this tapas stop more of a meal.  We ordered 2-3 more rounds of food, each accompanied by great banter with the help, and departed very satisfied for a very modest price.

Unfortunately, for Little NH, not all restaurants in Spain cater to the “napkin on the floor” tradition – including Ormazabal.  So, we had one more stop.

Stop 8: Munto Jatetxea Redux

One good turn deserves another, right?  As we were heading north to France the next morning and Little NH2 was asleep in her stroller, we decided to head back to Munto Jatetxea for our last plates of tapas.  Mrs. NH had not had enough pimientos de padrón on this trip and I had no problem helping her gobble up the heaping plate while our youngest slept in the stroller amidst the din of the patronage in the bar.  At the other end of the hyperactivity spectrum, Little NH stood outside in the pedestrian traffic only street and danced and sang to a tune residing somewhere deep inside her head.  Folks alternately chuckled at her, danced with her and dodged her.  We all got to do what we loved best.  Of course, Little NH took a break every now and then to come inside, sip some juice and toss down my used napkins.

A Perfect Day in San Sebastian – Part 1

Sundays in Spain are pretty hard to beat.  One can choose church in the morning or, if you were like us, opt to let your 4 year old and 8 month old sleep in after a typically late Spanish Saturday night.  The majority of the morning was rainy and gray so we hunkered down until around 11:00 as the clouds drifted away leaving a blue sky and gleaming cobblestone streets.

Stop 1: Churros

Mrs. NH and Little NH were determined to start their final day in Spain with the classic churros con chocolate.  Considering our late start, we had to travel to the “parte vieja” to find a restaurant offering the tasty breakfast.  The one we found seems to offer delectable churros 24/7.  With breakfast out of the way, it was time to begin on the rest of the culinary day out.

Stop 2: Basque Lessons

I have a pretty good conversational grasp of Spanish.  In the preceding week, I hadn’t missed a lick of conversation with any Spaniard.  However, in La Cepa I was fairly lost.  To this day, I’m not sure if the first conversation I had with the man behind the counter was in heavily accented Spanish or Basque.  Yes, I muddled through and got a plate of delicious pinchos, but I was left stuttering as if it was my first day speaking Spanish.  Confused, I brought the pinchos, sangria and zumo de manzana back to the family; the fellow behind the counter winked and gave me a small brochure with English, Spanish, Basque, Catalan, Dutch and other translations of common phrases and words.  “Ah, ha!” I thought.  “When in País Vasco…”

We gobbled up the pinchos and finished our sangria.  Having studied my translations, I was ready to make my next order as a local.  A Basque local.  “Bat sangria!” I hollered to my ostensible new professor.  He smiled and winked, “Eh, sangria bat! Pero gracias!”  It was a correction, and a good natured ‘thanks for trying.’  It was also my first word in a new language.  No one will ever confuse me for a linguist!

Stop 3: ¡Foie!

San Sebastian is Basque country and that means there is a good mix of French influence in this region.  Considering my weakness for foie gras, it was also a culinary jackpot.  We pulled up napping Little NH2’s stroller outside of Munto Jatetxea and I went in to place the orders in the midst of a bustling Sunday crowd.  I ordered stuffed peppers, out-0f-this-world croquetas for Little NH, and the aforementioned foie.  Ordering the foie gras was almost as fun as eating it.  I relayed my order in Spanish to the sprightly girl behind the counter and she repeated it with incredible vigor over her shoulder to the open door that contained the kitchen.  Seeing my reaction and smile at the power of her voice, she filled a caña and a clara and handed to me with a wide grin.  I. Love. Spain.

Stop 4: Plaza de la Lasta and the Waterfront

Fat and happy from several tapas we decided to take a break from eating and stretch our legs for a short walk to the waterfront.  The sun was now shining brightly and the town of San Sebastian seemed to be cast in Technicolor.  We sat on the pier for an hour, digesting and soaking up the sun while Little NH practiced her Spanish on a group of boys wrestling with a fishing pole twice their combined height.  Approaching them, she yelled, “¡Hola!”  They all gave her a disinterested look and went back to untangling their line.  Realizing that it won’t always be that way, I laughed and began plotting the rest of the day in my mind.  Across the way, a string of seaside restaurants beckoned.  Am I ever not hungry in Spain?

Continue to Part 2.

The Surprise of Pamplona

There are certain places you hear about in the world that you almost feel like you know even if you have never been there.  Names like “Paris” and “Rome” bring up images of the Eiffel Tower and Coliseum respectively, right?  Of course, when you picture, “Pamplona” you picture the running of the bulls, correct?

I thought the same thing up until a couple of weeks ago when the family and I had the good fortune to make a slight alteration to our northern Spain journey and dip into Pamplona for the day.  It was a last-minute decision on the way to San Sebastian and ended up as one of my favorite surprises of the trip.

As it turns out, there were no bulls in the street (despite Little NH’s imagination) but the streets were filled with great restaurants and the plaza mayor was sun-soaked on this fall afternoon.  The old town of the city is warm and hospitable.   The food, as in all of Spain, is top-notch – even in the touristy areas.

Pamplona’s biggest claim to fame isn’t hidden away, however.  Along the streets that make up the 826 meter “encierro” to the Plaza de Toros, are signs that demarcate the path that the bovines take, hot on the trail of targets for their sharp horns.

I don’t know about you but I prefer to find my surprise in the charm of the city rather than the surprise that awaits some poor runner on a sunny day in July – particularly if it comes at the ends of the horns of a bull.

Patatas Alioli

Spanish cooking is very traditional fare.  Unlike other European cultures, there is not a prevalence of foreign foods on offer in the bustling cities of Spain.  There are exceptions, of course.   If one looks hard enough, you can find a smattering of Japanese, pizza and even burger places.  However, the preponderance of cuisine in Spain is very fresh and very Spanish.

That’s why when Mrs. NH and I stumbled across these patatas alioli, we took notice.  It was in a restaurant tucked in a side street at the top of the old town of Tossa de Mar in northeastern Spain called La Lluna.  The patatas arrived piping hot with an inviting garlicky aroma.  The shape was the first thing we noticed.  They were round, restaurant namesake appropriate half-moons of perfectly crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside potatoes.    They were still covered in bubbly tender skin.  The edges of the moons were flaky and crispy and the whole piece was sprinkled with just enough sea salt to really make it zing on the palate.  The alioli was thick but began to melt slightly as it rested on the warm potatoes adding a luxurious creamy texture to the already fluffy, smooth centers of potato.

Mrs. NH and I have always been huge fans of patatas alioli but this batch stands out as one of the most delicious versions we have encountered.  The dish pushed the boundaries of the traditional dish in both shape and pure rustic goodness without leaving behind any of the authenticity.

The dinner at this restaurant was so good that we decided even before we finished our first meal that we would be back again the next night.  As if to punctuate our decision to the friendly and helpful staff, we left proclaiming “hasta mañana!”  Needless to say, we kept our promise.

Prague Towers

One day, earlier this summer, I christened this summer the “Summer of Prague Towers”.  Grandiose name notwithstanding, I meant to rally Mrs. NH, consummate planner of all free time, to set aside the coming sunny summer days as time to explore many of the climbable towers of Prague – as a family.  Unfortunately, life and a really rainy summer have gotten in the way of this grand plan and we scaled the first two of our towers today.

I would recommend both to any tourist coming to Prague for even a day.  The fact that we have lived here for seven years and have just now visited them is fairly laughable.  At any rate here are some shots from the towers: The Town Hall Tower and the Charles Bridge Tower.  Both were reasonably priced (free for the kids) and the Town Hall had an elevator for those not willing or able to walk to the top.

Texas, Kyiv, Kabul?

One of my faithful readers asked me if I had been too busy to post on my blog.  Yes, I have.  With the NH clan one member larger and all of the travel and treachery going on at work, I just haven’t had a chance to sit down and write.  I’ve been a little more active on Twitter but I realize that they’re two different things.

So, just hours from catching a flight to the middle east, I’ve decided to check in – albeit with a cursory stop-gap post.  I’m flying from Prague to Dubai and then on to Kabul where I will be this time tomorrow.  It promises to be an interesting trip.  I never knew I wanted to go there (and I’m still not sure I do) but I’m looking forward to it.  No doubt, there will be some future post fodder that I will collect while I’m there.

In the meantime, I’ll see you at the end of the week.

Texas Time

“Are you bored yet?”

That’s the question I get from, well, pretty much everyone who isn’t around me here in Houston.  The answer is, “No, not yet.”

Not at all.

Between the doctor’s appointments, sojourns to the grocery store, post office and whatnot, I’ve actually been keeping up with what’s going on in the office.  I’ve been fortunate enough to see friends from all over.  Sometimes in the same day.  Did I mention the grocery stores?

Oh, and then there are the wineries, museums, the zoo, brewery and ice cream factory that we’ve managed to visit.  Life’s good here in Texas.

Now, if we could just get this baby thing underway…

Shiner Brewery Tour – Shiner, TX

On the road between Houston and Austin and have an hour or two to spare?  Set the cruise to 74 on some back roads and hit the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Texas.  Any old GPS (or map) will get you there and it will be worth your visit.

I’ve visited a few breweries in my time and almost no one gets it as right as Shiner does.  It was a quick, informative, free and tasty tour.  On the beer trivia front, it was interesting to learn that Shiner has the capacity to bottle almost 500,000 bottles of beer a day.  Not to mention, it brews everything from a “Light” to a “Bohemian Black” and can switch its bottling line from style to style in about 20 minutes.  How’s that for old world beer and German engineering brought to small town Texas?

Finally, our gracious tour guide Anne, made it clear that some of the old world is still in this delicious Shiner brew.  The hops.  Yes, the hops come from “Germany and the Czech Republic”.  When we queried our hostess on pinpointing the actual home of the hops, she demurred.

All that and a secret recipe, to boot.

Merry Christmas from Texas!

We made it, we made it, we made it!  Flying through Amsterdam was a breeze and the flight to Houston was complete with generous wine service, movies in the headrest of the seat in front and all in our party had a really great flight.  We arrived to see Gigi, aunts, uncles and cousins and got a decent night’s sleep.

I got up this morning and set up Gigi’s new wifi router and now I feel right at home.  Merry Christmas to all of my faithful readers.  We’re looking forward to seeing some of you soon in person and we’ll be on skype with the rest of you!

Merry Chrismas!

Marooned in Prague!

As strands of “I’ll be Home for Christmas” still linger in the wires of my freshly unplugged stereo, I check my flight online and am forced to break the bad news to Mrs. NH.

Pregnant Mrs. NH, mind you.

At first, she doesn’t believe me. Then, she asks me to pull up the page to prove it. Then, she swears like a sailor. I love Mrs. NH.

It blinks in red.  CANCELED.

This is about to be a bigger PITA than that darned volcano that kept me in Ukraine this year. But at least, for now, I’m stranded at home. The real pain begins when I can’t get online.  Even to blog.  Waiting for a non-existent connection in Frankfurt. With bags the size of a trailer.  And the travel wrath of Little NH in full force.

A last, big, slobbery kiss goodbye, 2010.

I hope to keep you posted. Otherwise, um, happy new year?

TSA Stands for “Touching Sensitive Areas”

Or you could probably come up with your own definition.  The fact is, I’ve been groped for years.  I’ve been groped in Vienna, Prague and Munich (and that’s just on the metro!) and I’ve been shot with radiation in one of those standing x-ray things in Moscow for the last 3 or 4 years.  Yes my manhood is on file in Russia.  I just try not to think about it.  (No cracks about file size in the comments, alright?)

But, I have no choice.  If I were to say “no” like this guy and get put on the no fly list, that would be a short career for me.  But I agree that there has to be a comfortable medium.  And I believe the Feds need to find the happy middle sooner rather than later.  Because a lot of people are going to be a lot less passive than me.  It’s time for, as the pundits say, “a big national conversation.”  I expect privacy in the USA.  Moscow, not so much.  I just hope they have a lot of hard drive space.

It’s my blog.  I can say what I want.

International Truffle Festival, Alba, Italy


One doesn’t need to linger long at this site to know that Mrs. NH and I have acquired a real taste for truffles while living over here in the old country.  Of course, while many of my readers see this as just another example that NH has gone all high-falutin’ euro-style, I see it as more of a matter of supply and demand.  You see, over here, they charge a premium for crappy tacos.  Brisket?  Can’t buy it.  Cheeseburger?  $15.  Oreos?  No way, José.

But truffles are relatively plentiful in some of the places we frequent.  For example, you can’t go to a restaurant in Istria without finding several truffle dishes on the menu.  So, since eating locally is in fashion these days, we’ve worked the truffle into our home menu.  We have a cabinet full of them, to be exact.  We’re truffle hoarders.

Interestingly, that came in handy last month while we were in Piedmont at the exact same day that they were having the International Truffle Festival in the quaint, rustic town of Alba – in the heart of the Italian Truffle basket.  The fact that our cupboards are already full of truffles meant that we didn’t have to fork out any dough other than the 2 Euros for entry and a few more Euros for wine tastings.  But we got to witness some of the biggest and most beautiful truffles in the world in a unique, “how did this become my life” setting.

Up until my recent trip to Moscow, this was the most fun I had ever had at a trade show.  Truffles were the main attraction to be sure but another 50% of the show was devoted to regional wines, pasta, meat, cheeses and desserts.  The best part, they were giving out samples.  Truffle cheeses, goat cheeses, truffle sausage, chocolate truffles, wines and even some cheeses that looked like things that had been scraped of the bottom of my shoe.  I tried ’em all.

Then, there were the people.  Let’s not forget, these people are Italians.  They take their food and drink very seriously.  They’re also quite engaging after you ask them a few cursory questions about their product.  Americans seemed in short supply at this show and being one might have actually helped us score an extra nibble of sausage or a little taller pour of wine.  (The myth of Americans being hated in Europe is happily just that, a myth.)  I picked up some of the best Barolo’s and Nebbiolo’s I’ve tasted for a hair over $10 a bottle.  Italian’s know how to do wine.  They make sure it’s all very good.  Then they charge a reasonable price and make their money that way.  By selling all of it.  If it is exceptional wine, they charge a little more, but generally in this part of Italy, wine snobs are the exception to the rule.  With two college education funds to contribute to, I’m thankful for that!

If you’ve ever entertained the slightest thought of visiting this festival – do it.  If you’ve entertained the thought of visiting Piedmont but aren’t a hard-core truffle head, plan your visit around the time of this culinary trade show and you will be a convert before you drive out of town.  It’s a real European curiosity and a particularly awesome part of Europe.