Several months ago, I received a call from a curator in Quebec. The Solair chair, a fun and now famous outdoor chair that my father and his partner designed in the 70s in Montreal, would be part of the permanent exhibit in a brand new wing of the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (MNBAQ), Quebec City's fine arts museum. Would I like to attend the opening party for the Pierre Lassonde Pavilion on behalf of my father (on a random Wednesday night in June)?, they asked. Without hesitation, I said I would absolutely be there.
Neither of us had ever been to QC, but we had heard good things and we thoroughly enjoyed Montreal when we visited 9 years ago for a similar reason: my father's chair was in another exhibit there. However, that exhibit was ultimately delayed after we had already made our plans, so we were only able to see them setting up for the show. This time, I made sure to wait until the paper invitation had arrived, having learned my lesson with museum openings. So we got our tickets and found ourselves in lovely Quebec City for a long weekend. (Well, I was there for a long weekend; Nick was with me for the first half, and my mom joined for the second after Nick took off for a bachelor party in Cleveland (I win).)
While my father celebrated many successes in his career as an architect, industrial designer, furniture designer, and professor, when the Solair chair had a resurgence in popularity about ten years ago and came to be celebrated as one of the classic pieces of Canadian design of the last 50 years, his Alzheimers had already taken its toll. I remember showing him articles about his work, with beautiful photos of the chair in so many bright colors, hoping it would bring some joy. It may have, but he will never know that his work is permanently in one of the top museums in Canada, displayed as one of the most iconic pieces of design in the second half of the 20th century. Suffice it to say, I was proud enough for two.
The private opening party was wonderful; we felt honored to be part of it and thoroughly enjoyed all three exhibits. The next morning, MNBAQ opened its doors to the public and did a fantastic job of making the party last all weekend, with events and performances, leaving their doors open all day and almost all night. The opening coincided with Quebec's national holiday, Saint Jean Baptiste Day, so spirits were high and the locals were in a celebratory mood.
When we weren't partaking in the museum's festivities, we explored Quebec City's old quarter, perused the local food market, and walked through their vast park, the Plains of Abraham (somewhat similar to the National Mall in DC). Our days began with espresso and delicious fresh pastries from the bakery around the corner from our AirBnB, and it wasn't long before we were either sitting down to a tasty lunch, stopping for legit gelato, going for our second espresso, or having a poutine snack. For a relatively small city, QC's food scene absolutely does not disappoint and my list of restaurants was bigger than my stomach could handle.
QC is small enough to be very manageable for a weekend visit, but large enough that I could have spent even longer than five nights, continuing to eat my way through town, explore more museums, and venture further afield to surrounding areas. Especially in summer, the city makes awesome use of its public spaces, with performances, pop up gathering spots, and outdoor concerts, and I found myself really enamored with it.
Here's one of my favorite parts about the trip. About two weeks before our trip to Quebec, I was at WasteExpo (a conference and tradeshow) in Las Vegas. While waiting for a bus, I started chatting with a woman who lives in QC and works for a company called IPL, a manufacturer of plastic products including waste receptacles. After we parted ways, I remembered why IPL sounded so familiar to me: it's the company that commissioned and manufactured the Solair chair in 1972! When I saw her the next day, I told her that my father designed the chair, and that I would be in her city in two weeks for the opening exhibit. She knew the Solair chair well (in fact, they have them in their office, even though another company took over the manufacturing of the chair many years ago) and she lives across the street from the museum! We made plans to meet up in Quebec, and the day my mom and I spent with her on Île d'Orléans was to be a highlight of the trip.
Île d'Orléans is only a few kilometers from Quebec City, but it's the summer playground for many Québécois. About 20 miles long, it's got a ton of coastline on the Saint Lawrence River, and the interior has rolling hills, boasting some very fertile land where grapes, apples, and maples produce delicious products that can be tasted in dozens of wineries, cideries, and produce stands. The gentle hills make it heaven for cyclists, of which there are many. It's the kind of place where you can eat a lobster roll while drinking a local rosé overlooking an impressive waterfall (the Montmorency Falls, across the river) and wonder why you haven't been doing exactly that your entire life. Then you top it off with a local specialty, ice cream dipped into a hard, thick chocolate shell, and you know you've been doing it wrong all this time!
- Eat at L'affair Est Ketchup and Clocher Penche for a nicer dinner; try poutine or a burger at Chez Victor
- Have coffee and pastries at La Croquembouche; other great cafes: Nektar, Brulerie St Roch, and Cantook
- Have a drink at La Cuisine or any of the bars on Rue Saint Joseph Est; check out Le Spot in the summer; have a beer at Le Projet
- Walk around the Saint Roch neighborhood, where we loved the cafes, bars, and restaurants best. There are also some fun vintage shops.
- Head to the Marche de Port for local foods, produce, and wines
- Eat gelato at Tutto Gelato or a special chocolate dipped cone at Chocolat Favoris (seriously, do this)
- Explore the Old Town (but beware, a lot of it is quite touristy), walk the Promenade des Gouverneurs, which begins near the famous hotel Chateau Frontenac, and chill on the Plaines d'Abraham- if it's summer you can catch a free evening concert at the bandstand
- Check out the MNBAQ, especially the Canadian design exhibit in the Pierre Lassonde building!
- Spend a day biking or driving around Île d'Orléans, where you can stop at numerous cideries and wineries to try their local treats. Eat a lobster roll at Vignoble de St Petronille and wash it down with the local wines!
This Eastern European capital city has been on my list for a long, long time, and despite it being only a 3-hour train ride from Vienna (where I visit family often), I had still somehow never made it there.
Budapest-- which was formerly two cities, Buda and Pest -- reminded me a lot of Vienna visually, with beautiful architecture and open public spaces. Throw in some 80 geothermal springs, tasty food, cheap and delicious wine, fun nightlife, and you have a recipe for success.
Cities need quirks, in my opinion, to set themselves apart from every other city with nice buildings and good food. Within two hours of walking around Budapest, we found a sign for the "Cat Cafe" and immediately turned to follow the arrow. We were not disappointed to find a rather large cafe full of friendly kitties, cat wheels, platforms, toys, and of course, wine.
Besides befriending Hungarian cats, our days were spent admiring the architecture, learning about the history, partaking in the coffee and pastry culture, and cooling off in one of the city's many public baths (swimming pools of various sizes and temperatures, including some with wave pools and lazy rivers!). We even stumbled upon the inspiration for Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel. At night, after sampling the peppery cuisine, we caught the World Cup games, and checked out the "ruin bars" (drinking establishments set up in abandoned buildings, often taking over the courtyard and several rooms and decorated with all manner of yard sale goods).
Food-wise, we're talking a lot of paprika, a generous amount of meat, dumplings, pickled vegetables, and all sorts of peppers. Meals begin with a shot of the potent palinka (plum brandy), then a bowl of soup (often goulash) and meaty mains with vegetables. The food can be heavy, but it never lacked flavor, and it was always accompanied by a variety of local, and very drinkable, wines. And the pastries were absolutely scrumptious, tasting like an Austrian and Jewish grandmother (the kinds I know best) spent hours in the kitchen together and made some magic happen.
Things were not always so rosy in Hungary. When communism took over shortly after World War II, peasants were forced into collective farms, and a network of spies (the secret police, ÁVH) began to expose 'enemies' of the communist party, resulting in interrogation, torture, exile, forced labor, and execution of an estimated 25% of the adult population of Budapest during this time. The epicenter of this horror, where much of the torture and killing took place, is now a museum called the House of Terror, and we visited to understand more of the frightening and fascinating history. Hungary continued to struggle through various forms of communism and socialism until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.
Our final evening was spent with our feet in the city's biggest fountain, drinking a bottle of wine, surrounded by dozens of locals of all ages-- the perfect end to a lovely three days of exploring what just became one of my favorite European cities.
Eat: Hungarian Jewish food and the friendliest service at Rosenstein; meat dishes and wine at the more brusque Bock; lighter fare with lots of veggie options and a large garden at Kőleves; pastries at Fröhlich Cukrászda
Drink: chill and play with the toys at the awesome ruin bar Szimpla Kert; find the elevator up the roof at an old department store turned bar, Corvinteto; check out what's happening at Godor; sit with your feet in the fountain and a beer in your hand at Deak Ferenc ter
I can't rave enough about this awesome town at the base of the Smoky Mountains in the northwestern corner of North Carolina. It's been six months since we've been and I still smile when I think of our time there.
We'd been wanting to check out Asheville for a long time, and finally decided to make the 7-hour trip for a long weekend over New Year's. We reserved a cute apartment (complete with a kitty and chickens in the yard) in the West Asheville neighborhood through airbnb, and off we were with a list of a few dozen (!) restaurants, breweries, and galleries to visit!
Asheville packs a lot in a small space, but we managed to eat, drink and explore to our heart's delight, and left plenty to do for our next visit (hopefully in warmer weather!). When we weren't eating delicious Spanish tapas made by a chef with El Bulli training or sampling Indian street food that reminded of us our favorite snacks in New Dehli, we were tasting microbrews and contra-dancing with the locals.
To burn off those calories and check out the local art scene, we spent half a day exploring the River Arts District, which spans along the French Broad River in former industrial buildings and showcases dozens of artists' work, ranging from pottery to paintings to textiles.
While most people think of the Biltmore mansion when they hear of Asheville, we skipped it because of the hefty price tag. So we did the next best thing, and spent a couple hours at the Grove Park Inn, which hosts a huge gingerbread house competition around Christmas every year. Sunset drinks on their expansive patio weren't bad either!
Are you somehow still not sold on canceling whatever plans you had this weekend and driving down to Asheville right away?! How about a giant used bookstore with a champagne bar and tons of nooks and crannies to spend your afternoon?!
Asheville has a friendly, down-to-earth feel that has clearly cultivated a creative community of people who love where they live and want to share it with others. We felt welcome everywhere we went and by our fifth day there, I was wishing I was a local too!
While we weren't able to explore the area's endless outdoor opportunities-- hiking and rafting to name a few-- we did end the trip with a dip in the natural hot springs in - wait for it- Hot Springs, North Carolina! There's nothing quite like renting your own private tub for an hour in a rustic setting and treating yourself to some mineral therapy to confirm the fact that this little corner of the Carolinas is where it's at!
Eat and Drink:
- The Admiral - random, delicious, constantly changing menu in what looks to be an old dive bar-- there's a fireplace outside to keep you cosy on a cold winter night, and there's dancing after 11 pm on Fridays and Saturdays (this is hipster heaven)
- Biscuit Heads - biscuits the size of your heads, served with gravy of your choice, or help yourself to the delicious butter and jam buffet!
- The Bull and Beggar - From the team behind The Admiral- we only had cocktails at this spot in the River Arts District by but wished we could have tasted the food!
- Curate Tapas Bar - grab a seat at the bar and enjoy delicious tapas!
- Cucina 24 - Italian, try the tasting menu
- Chai Pani - Indian street food. Try the Bhel Puri!
- Early Girl Eatery - Southern/comfort food, go for breakfast
- French Broad Chocolate Lounge - almost any kind of chocolate creation you can imagine, go after dinner for dessert!
- Ben's Tune Up - small but good draft selection served with a side of Japanese food in beer-garden atmosphere
- The Southern - ask for Connor at the bar
- Wicked Weed - awesome brews and great food. Always crowded.
- Wedge Brewing - fun brewery in the River Arts District (but beware, there is no food except peanuts!)
- Walk around the River Arts District
- Peruse a great selection of used books and sip champagne at Battery Park Book Exchange
- Check out the general store-y stuff at Mast General Store
- Grab a huge rocking chair in front of the fire at the Grove Park Inn
- Buy good quality used outdoor gear at Second Gear
- Go contra-dancing or see a show at The Grey Eagle
- Pick up some local brews to bring home at Bruisin Ales
- Catch a live show at the Westville Pub
- Check out Christopher Mello's public garden at Westwood Place and Waynesville Avenue
- Pick up some records at Harvest Record Shop
- Soak in your own personal hot tub in Hot Springs, NC
Oh boy, where do I begin? Northern Vietnam had hands down my favorite cuisine of the 20+ countries we visited over the past year (note: I do not feel it would be fair to include Italy in the running for this title). While we've loved a lot of the Southeast Asian foods we've sampled, Vietnam's was so consistently delicious that all we really wanted to do while we were there was eat. And then eat some more. In fact, on our last full day in Hanoi we had a meal on the way from breakfast to lunch, just so that we could fit in all the food we wanted to try before we left. Most street food vendors in Hanoi are one-dish wonders, meaning that the stand (or hole-in-the-wall restaurant) only serves one thing, and they do it well. The ingredients -- whether it be noodles, veggies, or meat-- are fresh, often cooked before your eyes, many dishes are served with piles of fresh herbs, and most dishes have a great balance between salty, sweet, and sour. Textures were widely varied as well. And the best part? It's not heavy like many other Asian foods can be. So, sit back, grab a snack if you're already hungry, and read on. We've described some of our favorites here and included the name and/or address where we ate them in case you ever find yourself in Hanoi (pro tip: pack fat pants).
This might have been my favorite: grilled pork patties and slices of pork belly in a bowl of smoky, slightly sour broth that surely took hours to simmer to perfection, served with a pile of vermicelli noodles (conveniently cut for you at your table with a pair of scissors), a larger pile of fresh herbs such as basil and mint, chopped garlic and chilies, and crab spring rolls (we weren't sure if we should dip these in the soup or eat them separately, so we did both). Add the ingredients as you make room in your bowl and boom: one of the tastiest pork dishes I've ever eaten. We went back to this place for a repeat.
Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim, 67 Duong Thanh
Bun Bo Nam Bo
Another dish composed of the winning combination (noodles, freshly cooked meat and herbs). This salad starts with thinly sliced beef that is stir-fried fresh to order, to which noodles, bean sprouts, carrots, fried shallots, lemongrass, garlic, green mango, fresh herbs, and a tangy dressing are added.
Bun Bo Nam Bo, 67 Hang Dieu
We quickly realized eating the free breakfast in our hotel was a major mistake as soon as we discovered banh cuon, a thin, freshly made rice pancake filled with minced pork, shrimp, and mushrooms, and only served in the morning. One serving contains about 10 of these darling crepes, which we found to taste more like dumplings. They're topped with fried shallots and basil, and served with a dipping sauce. If the filling isn't breakfasty enough for you, you can ask for one to be made with an egg inside instead of the traditional filling.
Banh Cuon vendors: 14 Hang Ga; also in alley off of Au Trieu (next to St Joseph's Cathedral)
This is the one Vietnamese dish that is well-known around the world, but not surprisingly, it tastes best in Vietnam. It seems that pho joints take up almost every other hole-in-the-wall storefront or alleyway. Pho is served with either chicken or beef most of the time, and we definitely preferred the beef variety (pho bo). We soon learned that we had always eaten southern Vietnamese pho in the US, which is served with bean sprouts and piles of herbs on the side, and also with a thinner, rounder noodle than in the north. But both varieties start with a delicious beef broth that takes at least eight hours to make, to which soft, fresh noodles, thinly sliced onions, herbs, and tender slices of beef are added just before serving. Pho is usually eaten for breakfast, but can often be found later on in the day too since it's such a popular meal.
Pho Bo vendor, alley off the east side of Ly Quoc Su, near intersection of Ngo Huyen
These Vietnamese sandwiches are probably the second most famous Vietnamese street food (after pho). However, we had assumed that banh my referred to a sandwich with specific fillings (thinly sliced red roasted pork, mayo, lettuce, carrots and cucumbers), since that is the only Vietnamese sandwich I've ever seen on a menu in the U.S. Turns out banh my is actually just a term for the French-style baguette so ubiquitous in Vietnam, and it can be served with numerous fillings. Old habits die hard though, and the pork variety is still our favorite.
Banh My stand, on Hang Ga just north of the intersection with Hang Phen
I wish I could tell you what was in these savory fried snacks, but I have no idea. What I do know is that you cannot go wrong with one of these tasty treats. Vietnam's version of the Indian samosa is served with plenty of fresh herbs and a tangy dip made with fish sauce and pickled veggies.
Ban Ghoi vendor, 52 Ly Quoc Su
Xoi is sticky rice, and a popular way to fill up on the cheap. Many fast food xoi joints can be found in Hanoi where you pick a kind of xoi (plain, with corn, etc.), and then choose from a list of meat and veggie toppings. We tried plain sticky rice with cinnamon pork, plain sticky rice with corn and chinese braised pork, and sticky rice with corn, chicken, and mushrooms. The third bowl was probably excessive, but we indulged nevertheless because it was too delicious!
Xoi Yen, 35b Nguyen Huu Huan
Although it's not a street food, cha ca deserves a mention here because it's such a typical Hanoi dish. There are a couple very old cha ca institutions in Hanoi, and they serve only that. The morsels of turmeric-dusted juicy catfish are cooked at your table with fresh dill and green onions, and are served with noodles, more fresh herbs, fish sauce, peanuts, and chilies. At first we didn't get what the big deal was, but as soon as we bit into the fish, we understood this dish's popularity: the fish was some of the most tender and flavorful that we've ever had. I know I won't be able to re-create this dish at home, so I guess we'll just have to return to Hanoi if we ever want to taste it again!
Cha Ca, 21 Duong Thanh
Some like it sweet: the Vietnamese certainly do. They make their coffee strong and mix it with almost an equal amount of condensed milk (they call it "sweet milk"), which is sinful but addictive. Caphe trung takes this to the next level: condensed milk is whipped with an egg white until it reaches a consistency nearing mousse, and this is poured on top of strong iced coffee. You eat it with a spoon, because let's be honest: this drink is not coffee, it's a decadent dessert. I'm shocked Starbucks hasn't hopped on this train ("Vietccino" doesn't have the best ring to it though).
Cafe Pho Co, 11 Hang Gai
We're sorry for the lack of updates lately, but we've been too busy experiencing all that South Africa has to offer (not to mention that much of our accommodation has been off the electric grid, running on solar power, wind power, or generators, to say nothing of Internet access). We hope to get a few posts up in the next few days as we dig out of the backlog.
Coming directly to Cape Town from Buenos Aires turned out to be an excellent introduction to this amazing continent. Although the city lacks much of the "real Africa" sensibility we would see further along, it had plenty of its own life, and the vibrant music scene, great food, gorgeous setting, and intimate and easily-navigable size made it an easy place to spend a week, and gave us time to plan our next days and weeks. We split our time Couchsurfing in the nearby suburb of Woodstock and staying in a backpackers' (what South Africans call a hostel) located between the bustling nightlife area of Long Street and the quieter upscale residential area called Gardens. Our Couchsurfing host, Will, was incredibly friendly and welcoming, and we enjoyed learning a bit about South African pastimes from him (especially rugby and cricket) as well as cooking a few meals together.
Before we move to specifics, a few overall impressions that really struck us were how friendly the people are (there was no shortage of people offering to help us find our way or give us a ride so we didn't have to call a taxi), how beautiful the surroundings are, and how interesting the mix of African, Indian, Dutch, and British culture is. But it wouldn't be fair to only paint a rosy picture of the area; there is stark poverty as well. The area's poorest residents live outside the city in townships: huge areas crowded with small shacks that have been thrown together from scrap materials. It is striking how a township can be located right next to a wealthy area: the neighborhoods may share the same beautiful settings on hills or overlooking the water, but that is about all they have in common. In some respects Cape Town seems incredibly rich; for instance, the tourism offices are incredibly helpful and full of free materials for tourists, the roads are well kept, the sidewalks and parks are some of the nicest we've ever seen, and the tap water is drinkable. On the other hand, there are plenty of beggars as well as opportunists. An example of the latter is the parking attendants we encountered everywhere: they "help" you get into a parking spot and are expected to be paid for "watching" your car, even if it is the middle of the day, you only parked for ten minutes, and the lot is extremely secure.
The city's setting is one of its most striking qualities: with the looming cliffs of Table Mountain, Lion's Head, and Signal Hill surrounding the city, and a bustling and still-working port and coastline, it reminded us of both Rio de Janiero and San Francisco. We were able to take advantage of two of the three great spots to overlook the city: a steep but short hike up Lion's Head afforded spectacular views of both the city center and the small beach suburbs and coastline, and an evening drive up Signal Hill on our last night in town rewarded us with the beautiful sunset over the ocean that proved quite elusive during our week-long stay due to the unpredictable weather.
What Cape Town may lack in traditional influence, it makes up for with some of the traditional pleasures you'd expect in a city of its size. We had some great food and heard some good music, two of our biggest passions. Cape Town's most traditional food is probably a cuisine known as Cape Malay: a fusion of African ingredients with Indian, Malaysian, and Indonesian spices and sensibilities. We got our introduction at a small, family-run place called Biesmiellah in the colorful muslim neighborhood of Bo Kaap, where we sampled denning vleis (a lamb dish in a sweet and flavorful sauce that tasted a bit like raisins), moong dhal (a spicy lentil dish), and koeksisters (fried dough balls). Second, while not a South African specialty by any measure, we had a hamburger so good it bears mentioning. The Royale Eatery is a pretty unassuming place, with tasteful but sparse decoration, but they really put their focus on their burger. Mine came with gherkins, and a spicy chili sauce, and Claudia got hers basted in their special sauce with grilled mushrooms and cheese. Both were cooked to perfection, juicy and flavorful, and came on homemade buns of just the right consistency. Top it off with wonderful sweet potato fries and a delicious milkshake for dessert and you've got a winning combination.
We caught two concerts while in Cape Town. One was a band called Mr. Cat and the Jackal at a wonderful venue on Long Street, The Waiting Room. Our Couchsurfing host, Will, invited us to come to the show with him and a few friends. The band reminded us a bit of Devotchka, but with a more story-telling edge. The venue was intimate but open at the same time: the main room had sofas to sit on (a nice bonus!) and opened up to a big balcony overlooking Long Street. A few days later we caught a couple local bands at another venue, Mercury Live. Here we were reminded a bit of our age, since most of the patrons were about ten years younger than us, and at lest three sheets to the wind when we arrived at around 10 pm. It was entertaning to say the least, and we enjoyed the first band, Pretty Blue Guns.
Besides eating and seeing live shows, we also visited the District Six mueseum and Robben Island. The museum explains the history of the forced evictions of non-whites from the District Six neighborhood during the '60s and '70s. The area had been a thriving neighborhood of mixed race, but the government evicted some 50,000 people, moved them far from the city, and bulldozed almost all of the houses and buildings. However, due to the horrific manner in which people were forced out of their homes, no one wanted to move into the area because of the stigma, and today it remains mostly just a large grassy area. Another interesting foray into South Africa's history was our visit to Robben Island, which was a prison for several decades. Its most famous prisoner was of course Nelson Mandela, who was there from 1963 to 1981. While the tour itself was a bit rushed, all the tour guides are former prisoners themselves, so they are really able to speak from their own experiences when describing every day prison life.
After a couple days of strolling around the city's best neighborhoods and getting our history fix, and before we had our rental car, we decided to spend a day seeing the city's surroundings' best sites from the open-top sightseeing bus. Before taking this trip, we were under the opinion that these busses were overpriced tourist traps, but after being told by a local that it was a great experience that he and his friends sometimes even took advantage of, and that one of the two available routes made stops at the botanical garden, a winery, and a few coastal towns we were interested in, we decided to take the plunge, and we're glad we did.
Our first stop was Kirstenbosch botanical gardens, the idea of Cecil Rhodes, it's a sprawling and beautiful place that was once voted the seventh-best garden in the world. We wandered through gardens displaying scented, useful, and endangered plants, as well as a few devoted to the unique ecosystems belonging only to the cape. Did you know that South Africa is the only country which houses an entire Kingdom of plants? We then visited the Groot Constantia wine estate located in a beautiful setting in one of the area's most rich neighborhoods, Constantia. We then continued on through Hout Bay to Camps Bay, taking in the views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Twelve Apostles of Table Mountain on both sides of us.
Overall, we loved Cape Town, and will definitely be back for more. After all, due to the weather, we never even made it up to the top of Table Mountain! It was a wonderful introduction to South Africa and got us excited to spend a month here.
Buenos Aires was one of the South American sites that we were most excited to visit, because we had heard nothing but glowing reviews from those who had been there previously; and it didn't disappoint. It's a lively city that loves its food, drink, music, dance, handicrafts, art, and antiques, and we decided to take the opportunity to settle in by renting an apartment and trying to feel like locals, and to reflect on our time in South America and spend some time thinking about the road ahead, all while enjoying the vibrant street festivals, exciting nightlife, tranquil and beautiful parks, and wonderful food of one of the best cities in the world. Here are some of our highlights.
It's hard to believe, but there were very few places in South America we stayed more than three nights; before Argentina, it had been more than two months since we had done so. So when we decided to stay in Buenos Aires for nine days--our longest stay on the continent--we decided to rent a furnished apartment. It turned out to be a good decision, as the cheapest hostels we could find were in the same range, cost-wise, and by renting we got a spacious bedroom and living area, a private balcony, and our own kitchen and bathroom, luxuries that had been scarce in the rest of the continent.
On the suggestion of our friends who had been in Buenos Aires a few years ago, we stayed in the hip San Telmo neighborhood, and pretended to be locals in this fun and arsty neighborhood, full of character and void of any pretentiousness. We used the subway, shopped at the local indoor market and made our own breakfast and lunch almost every day, as well as a few dinners, frequented the small local restaurants and bars, and even saw a live band at a venue a few blocks away. After being on the road for three months, these common little things were refreshing, rejuvenating, and very welcome.
The Street Festivals
Our temporary home, San Telmo, is well-known for the plethora of antiques and furniture shops lining its little streets, and in this way it reminded us a bit of the U Street/14th Street area of NW Washington, DC. What our neighborhood in DC doesn't have, however, is the bustling Sunday market: every Sunday, blocks and blocks of stalls are set up around the Plaza Dorrego selling anything from antique household items to vintage sunglasses to handmade modern jewelry to homemade cakes. Tango dancers perform on street corners, bands perform wherever they find space; and a large drum troupe even comes through the streets at the end of the day, preceded by a group of dancing women. It can get crowded, but the people watching is all part of the fun. We spent parts of both of the Sundays we spent in BA wandering up and down Avenida Defensa, looking at the handmade, recycled, and vintage goods for sale, sampling the street food, and we even found the pair of rings we looked for in every handicrafts market and jewelry store since Colombia.
On the outskirts of town, there is another Sunday festival, this one in a neighborhood called Mataderos. While smaller and less trafficked, it certainly didn't lack in enthusiasm. Whereas San Telmo's Sunday festivities focus mostly on commerce, those in Mataderos are more about performance: song and dance, and even a horse show performed by gauchos, which, unfortunately, was canceled on the day we attended because of weather. The focal point is a large stage set up in front of the town's historic clock tower, where we watched three dance troupes perform traditional, indigenous dances complete with multiple changes of their lavish costumes. Before and between the main entertainment, music was played and the locals (many of them dressed in traditional, historical clothing) formed two lines in the middle of the crowd and took part in a traditional folk dance.
As many of you know, we both love music, and go to many shows back home in DC, but this is one passion that's been hard to satisfy on the road. It's hard to get a feel for the local venues and local bands when you only spend a few days in a city; sure, there's the odd street performer and house bands in bars, but finding something we really liked was difficult. In Buenos Aires, however, music was everywhere and it wasn't hard to find some great stuff. In addition to the great serendipitous finds at the street festivals, we took it upon ourselves as temporary locals to learn about the local music venues and find some shows to attend. We dropped in at a kind of curated up-and-comers night and saw a one-man electronic band where the highlight was the vintage films being projected behind him. We also ventured out to a local club to see a band that we knew little more about than their name (Les Mentettes) and a three-minute youtube video, and were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a 30-person orchestra playing original soul-influenced pop songs. An all-around great experience, and we even bought the cd to take back home with us.
Las Madres de la Plaza
Every Thursday afternoon, media and onlookers flock to the Plaza del Mayo to witness a decades-old tradition. First a bit of history: for seven years in the 1970s and 1980s, Argentina was in the midst of their "dirty war", a period of state-sponsored violence wherein tens of thousands of young men and women who voiced any dissatisfaction with the regime simply disappeared. Most are assumed to have been killed, but some were returned to their families tortured and beaten within an inch of their lives. Because most people were too scared to protest this ruthless treatment (for fear of becoming desaparecidos themselves), there was little public outcry. In fact the only group that did lodge a public protest was organized by the mothers of the unfortunate martyrs, who have been solemnly and silently walking around the Plaza del Mayo weekly, holding posters of their missing children. Las Madres de la Plaza, as they have come to be known, are recognized as having helped bring the war to an end by raising international awareness of the conditions in their country. To this day they maintain their weekly vigil, as their childrens' bodies have never been found, nor have any of those responsible apologized or been held responsible.
South of San Telmo is the small, somewhat rough neighborhood of La Boca ('the mouth', referring to the shape of the harbor here). La Boca is where BA's soccer team, the Boca Juniors, has their stadium. There is also a very cute and colorful area right by the water where the two- and three-story buildings are made of tin and scrap wood and painted in bright colors. This is where some of the cities' poorest and newest immigrants lived, and they used to build their homes with scrap materials from the harbor. In an effort to spruce up the run-down alley being used as a trash dump, local artist Benito Quinquela Martín painted every available wall in bright colors. It makes for a very picturesque area. Our favorite part of the neighborhood was actually not the famous Caminito street where all the artists sell their goods, but a former train track path where artists were allowed to paint huge murals on the side of the buildings. The tracks are no longer in use, so it almost feels like a long and narrow outdoor museum.
El Gato Viejo
Every city has it's famous eccentrics, and in Buenos Aires it's Carlos Regazzoni and his gallery. While the gallery itself wasn't open, we spent a few minutes strolling around the space outside, filled with countless sculptures built from railroad parts and other scrap metals.
Where to Play
Brasserie Petanque: Want to feel like you're in Paris? Step inside for a late lunch, grab a glass of wine and enjoy one of the many meat dishes or the special of the day while people-watching through the huge windows. Neighborhood: San Telmo.
Desnivel: A favorite of the locals, this casual spots serves up no-frills grilled meat. The chimichurri sauce, placed on every table with your bread, was the best we had in Argentina, and the marinated eggplant was divine (and the closest thing you'll get to a veggie). Neighborhood: San Telmo.
Dill & Drinks: This downtown spot has three or four tables, an attractive bar, a long drinks menu, and no food menu. That's because dishes change each day depending on what the chef found fresh at the market, but usually include a fish, a meat, and a risotto. It's a good change of pace from the usual steak-and-red-wine spots. Sit at the bar and chat with the friendly (and talented) bartenders. Neighborhood: Microcenter.
El Gato Negro: One of BA's historic cafes, you can find more than just coffee, teas, and pastries here. They have an amazing selection of spices that can be purchased by weight. This is the perfect place to stop by if you need a break from the hustle and bustle of downtown. Neighborhood: Av Corrientes, Downtown.
Freddo Ice Cream: With locations all over the city, this is BA's favorite spot to grab a cone of gelato. Try one of the rich chocolate or dulce de leche flavors.
La Brigada: This classic BA steakhouse is a little on the pricier side, but they know what they're doing when it comes to beef. Businessmen, families, and 20-somethings alike come here for special occasions. Don't bother with the average salads, sides, and desserts. Neighborhood: San Telmo.
Persico Ice Cream: Just as good if not better than Freddo but slightly more upscale. Flavors are organized by category just like its competition. Neighborhood: Palermo.
Pizzeria Guerrin: This is a classic BA spot where you can order cheap pizza by the slice and stand up at the bar to eat it, or get a whole pie to go. It seems to have quite a few faithful regulars. The atmosphere is worth it alone. Neighborhood: Av Corrientes, Downtown.
Drink & Dance
Antares Brewery: Microbrews aren't always so easy to come by in Argentina, but this place does a decent job. We especially liked the barleywine. Get a sampler and try all 12! Neighborhood: Las Cañitas & Palermo (as well as other cities around the country).
Gibraltar: An English-style pub serving up a decent variety of beers on draft and typical pub grub. It's a good place to start the night or watch a rugby or football match. Neighborhood: San Telmo.
La Puerta Roja: BA hipsters gather here for drinks, snacks, the pool table and good music in the background. The door was unmarked but the atmosphere was welcoming. Neighborhood: San Telmo.
La Trastienda: Great live music venue where you can stand in the general seating area or reserve anything from a barstool to a small table to lounge seating. Also a cafe serving up lunch and dinner. Neighborhood: San Telmo
Le Bar: Check out Tuesday night's free local band showcase, where two bands are picked to play each week. Le Bar has plenty of seating and good ambiance. Given its downtown location, it's probably a good happy hour spot as well. Neighborhood: Microcenter.
ByT Argentina: Hostels aren't cheap in BA so get more for your money with a furnished apartment! There are several companies that rent apartments, but we chose ByT because it was the only one with good options in San Telmo. Reservations were easy; the only slightly annoying part is that you must pay in cash.