Shopping for Local Artisan Goods in Madrid

I’m always delighted when I can find an authentic store in another country with items for sale that I would want in my home. I’m not looking for chatchkie’s or tshirt shops. Rather, I want a souvenir that will remind me of our trip, and one that I will still enjoy looking at a year from now, and ten years from now as well. Who am I kidding here? I want bowls. Bowls, bowls, bowls. My family will tell you that I love bowls. They might even say I am obsessed with them, and I can’t deny it. Wherever I am, I am drawn to bowls, of all shapes and sizes.

Thus, when Rick Steves steered us to the Antigua Casa Talavera ceramics shop in Madrid, and I got one look at what we might take home, I was certain I was in the right place. The shop is not easy to find, nor is it open all day and evening like many stores in the US tend to be. When we first found it, it was closed for the afternoon, but once we saw the tiled front and peeked in the window at the hundreds and hundreds (maybe even thousands and thousands) of pottery pieces—many of them bowls—I knew we had to come back.

Antigua Casa Talavera has been in business, in the same location, since 1904. The proprietor is the great-grandson of the founder, and he alone sells the ceramics of local artists. Jose knows the history of each piece he sells too, and let me tell you, there’s lots of history to learn. He told us that he can’t host too many people in his shop at one time, because he is the only employee, and everywhere you turn there are breakable pieces of pottery. There were two other couples in the small narrow store when we were there, and the six of us made it feel crowded.

Jose was delightful, and even though he speaks just a little English, and we speak even less Spanish, we were able to communicate and purchase three items that are now displayed in our home. From start to finish, Jose’s customer service was outstanding. He wrapped our three items for transit home on the airplane incredibly well, and even tied sturdy string around the package to easily carry it. Part of the pleasure of buying an item is also the whole shopping experience, and this shopping experience was indeed outstanding, as are the pottery pieces we purchased. And to top it all off, I bought another bowl to add to my collection.


Anita Won’t Throw Me a Rose This Fight

I played softball as a young girl. And my coach regularly told me to “stop smelling the flowers out there in the outfield and pay attention to the game.” So it should come as little surprise that one of my favorite childhood books is The Story of Ferdinand. Ferdinand is a bull who would rather smell flowers than fight in a bullring. I can totally relate.

Thus, when Bob suggested we tour Sevilla’s Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla, Spain’s oldest bullring, you know why I was hesitant. I didn’t want to imagine bulls like my sweet Ferdinand being stabbed, or worse, see the gory photos. But in the interest of a happy marriage, I went along and found that I quite enjoyed our tour (sorry Ferdinand). Bull fights take place in Sevilla during the spring, and thankfully we visited in the fall, so we couldn’t go to a fight. Instead we enjoyed a 45-minute guided tour of the beautiful and historic Plaza de toros, which was built over a 100-year period and finished in the late 1800s.

Our tour included a look in the museum, where intricate costumes of famous matadors are on display, along with the heads of several bulls, and quite a few paintings by Spanish artists depicting noble matadors, majestic bulls and frenzied fight scenes. We also stopped in the chapel, where to this day matadors go before each match to pray for the bull. (More likely, they are praying for their own safety, but a Ferdinand fan can dream.) Finally, we stepped into the middle of the 12,000 seat arena, on the dirt bullring floor, to admire the view that matadors and bulls have when they enter. Other than the dirt floor, there’s not much to a bullring. I’m guessing that’s because this sport is all about the matador and the bull. There are several burladeros (wooden half walls) on the outskirts of the ring that one can step behind to avoid a charging bull, which I would totally do. I’d fly a white flag over the burladero to surrender before having to kill the bull too, which is why I am not a matador. The arena really is beautiful though, and it is a fascinating look at a sport incredibly popular in Spain.

Sevilla offers many delights in addition to the Plaza de toros bullring. We spent two entertaining days there, strolling the atmospheric old quarter, visiting the Catedral de Sevilla—Europe’s third largest church, and paying our respects to the Weeping Virgin at the Basílica de la Macarena. Of course, we found time to eat some delectable tapas at a few hidden tapas bars as well. With Rick Steves as our go-pilot (or Rick Steves Snapshot Sevilla anyway), our self-guided tour of Sevilla went off without a hitch. Here are our highlights.

We took Rick’s advice, and saved our walking tour of the Barrio Santa Cruz, also known as the Old Quarter, for the cool, late afternoon. The many tiny alleys and walkways—so tiny that people in buildings on either side of the lanes could reach across from their windows and shake hands—have hidden delights around just about every corner. Whether it’s a secret garden behind an ornate gate, a classical guitarist playing outside a bar, or even a rooftop view of the Catedral de Sevilla lit up at night from a free museum, the Old Quarter is made for wandering. We walked the neighborhood three different times and discovered new things on each occasion.

Another not-to-be-missed sight is the Catedral de Sevilla. Thanks to excellent advice from our man Rick, we bought tickets for the Catedral at another church, and were able to bypass the Catedral’s long ticket line and walk right in to the grand church. The church is impressive and features a high altar, an organ made of more than 7,000 pipes, the tomb of Christopher Columbus, and the 330-foot Giralda Bell Tower, which you can climb to the top of via a series of 35 ramps and 17 steps at the very end.

Perhaps my favorite sight was the Basílica de la Macarenajust under two miles from Sevilla’s city centerhome of the Weeping Virgin of Macarena. During Holy Week, which is the week leading up to Easter, Spaniards flock to Sevilla to see more than 100 religious floats parade through the city. The most popular float is that Virgin Macarena. She is also known as the Weeping Virgin because of the crystal teardrops cascading down her cheeks, and Spaniards see her as a symbol of hope. You can visit her at the Basílica, and also view two of the massive and stunning Holy Week floats on display as well. And in case you’re wondering, the Macarena neighborhood is indeed where the song “La Macarena” comes from. But we won’t hold that against them.

Delicious tapas bars abound in Sevilla. Some spots we discovered by walking down alleys and simply stopping anywhere the locals were crowded in, drinking and eating. Others we found based on recommendations from Rick Steves. All shared the same features, cheap and delicious tapas, along with good beer. We tried hard to fit in with the locals, and if drinking beer with lunch was one way to do so, we blended right in.

Tonight, We Are Young

In my never-ending quest to be more youthful, I’m always on the lookout for the hip, cool spots to hang out. That being said however, I want to hang out in hip and cool spots on my 50-year-old terms. You know, I want to wear comfortable shoes, drink better quality liquor, and have a warm, clean place to go to the bathroom. This fall, Bob and I spent three delightful days in Lisbon, Portugal, where we walked all over, ate outstanding tapas and Portuguese delicacies, and hung out with the cool kids, drinking on the streets on a Friday night. And yes, I was wearing comfortable shoes, drinking better quality liquor, and there was a warm, clean place to go to the bathroom. Dreams do come true.

One of Lisbon’s most iconic spots, the Rua da Bica de Duarte Belo, is an extremely steep street (11% grade) with a working funicular. For about 4 euros, you can ride 800 feet on a picturesque tram that first began operating in 1892. But even better, the street also boasts a few tiny bars right off the funicular route, whose patrons spill into the street and on the tracks. When a funicular comes slowly rolling up the hill, the revelers simply saunter out of the way, then merge back onto to the tracks when the tram has passed. We stumbled on this happening spot one Friday night in late October, finding oodles of young Lisboetas enjoying cheap beer and conversation. (Side note: you know you’re old when you look around and a) no one else has grey hair and b) everyone is drinking 1 euro cheap beer instead of 2 euro sangria. We bucked the trend in both cases.)

But if you don’t want to hang out drinking on funicular tracks, you’re still in luck. Picturesque streets and fun public transit abound in Lisbon. It’s been said that Lisbon is similar to San Francisco, and I definitely agree. Both cities are on the water, with steep, narrow streets and hidden alleys, and both offer trolleys to get around town. After meandering through three different neighborhoods on self-guided walking tours, with Rick Steves Snapshot Lisbon to point out the best sites, Bob and I found our way Prazeres Cemetery, where the popular Trolley #28E starts its rickety journey across town.

We trekked to its starting point because we wanted to make sure we got seats on this popular route that lurches its way up and down Lisbon’s hills and through its twisty, cobbled streets, fighting traffic the whole way. We had to box a few young folks out, to keep them from cutting us in line, but we did indeed get seats and our ride through town was delightful. This isn’t just a touristy journey. Plenty of locals use the vintage trolleys to get around town as well. It’s great to have a seat where you can look out the window, because at times, it seems the trolley is going to hit any number of cars or other trolleys as it squeezes down tight streets, but the drivers are not shy about using their trolley bells, warning others to get out of the way.

We ate great local food in Lisbon, including the famous pastel de natas—an egg tart pastry that we had at breakfast every day—as well as delicious sardines, local sausages and more. And we drank good beer and delicious sangria in many lively neighborhoods as well.

On our final day we rode the bus out to Belem, five miles west of downtown Lisbon. With many interesting sites, Belem is worth a half day of sightseeing. We enjoyed the National Coach Museum that boasts one of the best displays of historical coaches in the world. The coaches are housed in an old riding school, and date as far back as the 1500s. They once belonged to Italian Popes and royalty from France, England and Spain, to name a few.

We walked back to Lisbon from Belem, stopping along the way at the LX Factory, a hip, cool outdoor shopping/bar/restaurant district that was once an industrial center. Again, we were surrounded by the cool kids, as they sat outside drinking and conversing on a late afternoon. Bob and I certainly must have some youthful magnetism that draws us to the happening spots. It only took us 50+ years to discover it.

Canceling a Trip Without Insurance

Over the years, Bob and I have purchased trip insurance for a variety of reasons. At one time, we purchased travel health insurance for our whole family when our health policy would not cover us outside the United States. Another time, we purchased insurance because we booked our travel far in advance, and wanted to “hedge our bets” so to speak. Now, our current credit card, the United Club Card, offers trip insurance coverage for travel purchased with the card, as do many other credit cards. But all trip insurance, no matter the plan or provider, is limited in what is covered.

Recently, Bob and I chose to cancel a planned trip to Myanmar. We had booked airline tickets to Yangon early last summer, before the military operations that have displaced more than half a million Rohingya Muslims began, with the intention to travel in January 2018. But once the situation developed, we decided we could not, in good conscience, travel there.

Our tickets, $560 each round trip from SFO to Myanmar, were purchased through a third party agency on Air China, and were listed as “refundable.” But there’s always fine print isn’t there? The tickets were indeed refundable, but we only got back what ultimately amounted to the price of one ticket, after the cancellation fees of $280 for each ticket were applied. Bob tried to plead our case with Air China, but to no avail. They were completely unhelpful, in fact, they hung up on Bob after telling him they would not help us. The third party agency tried to help us as best as they could, calling Air China on our behalf, but they got nowhere either.

Could we have done something differently to receive a full refund? Frankly, I’m not sure we could have. We did not have any trip insurance for these tickets. But in this case, I don’t believe insurance would have helped us. My experience with trip insurance is that the fine print is quite specific as to what it actually covers. Most travel insurance plans cover trip cancellation due to death or serious illness—with signed medical forms needed for proof—job loss, and terrorist attacks and natural disasters (with a great deal more fine print). None of these reasons were specific to the cancellation of our trip.

It’s possible that if we were flying on United, where we are long time customers and frequent fliers, that United might have taken pity on us and waived the fees. They have done this for us before, when we canceled a trip to Peru because of State Department warnings. But we got nowhere with Air China. And I do mean nowhere.

I am in no way suggesting that trip insurance is a bad idea. For certain trips, and for certain travelers, I believe trip insurance can be very useful. I just don’t believe it would have helped in this situation.

Here are two stories from travel experts that should give you a bit more insight:


There Stands the Glass

by Nancy Bestor

I must admit, I have mixed feelings about museums. I always have really good intentions. I tell myself I want to see all the best paintings/sculptures/exhibits on offer and I am excited to do so. But my enthusiasm often peters out before I make it to the third or fourth (or second) gallery. I’m here to tell you though that Chihuly Garden and Glass is, from start to finish, fantastic. Every single exhibit is stunning, and if I lived in Seattle I might just buy a season pass.

Located in the shadow of the Space Needle at the Seattle Center, Chihuly Garden and Glass houses a wonderful collection of the sublime glass-blown art of Dale Chihuly. Eight galleries, an outdoor garden with glass works scattered throughout beautiful matching flowers, trees and shrubs, and the centerpiece of the museum, the 40 foot tall Glasshouse, gave me a new and enthusiastic appreciation for this art form. From the suspended sculptures to the vase-like pieces, each is extraordinary. Even the videos detailing Chihuly’s process and his international shows in such far-flung locales as Venice and Jerusalem were fascinating. Admission is $29. That sounds a bit steep, but I promise you, it is $29 very well spent.

Bob, Emily and I wondered many things as we toured Chihuly Garden and Glass. How often and how easily are the glass sculptures cleaned? The outdoor pieces must get pooped on by birds every now and then right? They were in perfectly pristine shape when we visited, so someone is taking good care of them. I would be too nervous for that job, let me tell you. None of the sculptures are behind glass (get it?). But all kidding aside, anyone can touch these pieces. Has one ever been broken? And what sort of home is grand enough to house a large Chihuly sculpture? I’d pay money to see that too.

It’s hard to do this museum justice in words, and perhaps even harder in photographs. But here are a few of my favorite pieces, from an amateur photographer’s perspective.

Age is Only a Number, Or is It?

by Nancy Bestor

I celebrated a milestone birthday earlier this year, and although most of my real friends tell me I don’t look a day over 39, every now and then I get a not so gentle reminder that I am no spring chicken. Take a trip to LA earlier this year for example. I was meeting my daughters for a long weekend, but since we were flying from separate locations, and their plane was late, I had several hours to kill, so I went to a fancy Los Angeles movie theater.  The theater was lovely, with a full bar and restaurant, a gift store, and every kind of candy you might imagine available for purchase. When I bought my ticket, the young man behind the counter hesitated a moment before asking me if I was buying an “adult” ticket. Yes, of course I was, I’m not trying to get the kids’ price, I thought. I’m sure you all know where this is going. He proceeded to ask me if I was a senior, so I could get the senior citizen discount. I was 49 years old at the time. Forty. Nine.

Then last week Bob and I were looking at trips to Patagonia, thinking that next fall we might like to travel to Argentina and see some glaciers, walk on the ice, and hike some fabulous trails. The only tour company that actually takes folks for hikes onto the Perito Moreno Glacier itself has two options; a mini-trek, and a longer “Big Ice” trek. Of course I immediately wanted to do the Big Ice trek as it goes right to the middle of the Glacier, as opposed to just on its edges, and then I found out that the age limit for the Big Ice trek is 18-50. Yep. Bob is already too old for this trek, and I will officially be too old after April 2018.

I don’t often feel old. I’m figuring that I’ve got oodles of time to take adventurous and active vacations. And that’s just what Bob and I are planning to do. At the time of this email’s release, we are on a week long walking tour of the Southern Algarve Coast of Portugal. But the truth of the matter is, life is short. Eat dessert first. Buy the shoes. Smile while you still have teeth. And hike the Perito Moreno Glacier when you’ve got the chance.

Life Is A Journey, Not a Destination

by Nancy Bestor

I’ve always thought there is something extra exotic about a destination that you can’t get to by plane or car. Those places that you have to go the extra mile and make the extra effort to see, whether you’re hiking, taking a boat, or even riding a donkey, just seem more exciting to me.

On our five-month honeymoon around the United States in our old Volkswagen bus, Bob and I spent a few days at the Grand Canyon. This is truly one of the most awe-inspiring spots I have ever been fortunate enough to visit. We didn’t limit ourselves to the view from the Rim though. We took a day to hike to the bottom, where we camped overnight, and then we hiked back out over the next two days. We packed all our camping gear and food in and back out with us. I remember my pack being very heavy, and I remember the hike being exhausting, but I also remember feeling like it was all worth it.

I had to repeatedly remind myself of these beliefs when earlier this year my girlfriends and I were on a less than delightful 45-minute boat ride on our way to Yelapa from Puerto Vallarta. Yelapa is a sleepy village south of PV, that is only accessible by ferry (and I use the term ferry loosely). While the boats run several times a day, we just barely made it for the day’s final crossing. Our flight arrived at 4pm, and via email with the manager of the ferry boat, we had arranged for the 5pm boat to be held for our arrival. The crew and about 30 passengers were all waiting for us when we arrived by taxi, but we still needed to get cash as there are no banks or ATM’s in Yelapa. After a hurried ATM stop we stepped aboard.

We foolishly thought we would have time to buy beers before boarding. Beers that we would leisurely sip on what was sure to be a relaxing and picturesque boat journey to Yelapa (insert laughing/crying emoji here). There wasn’t time to buy beer, and as it turned out, we were hanging on for dear life, and our beers would have quickly gone overboard anyway. Apparently, boat rides later in the day are pretty choppy, and that is an understatement. We donned life jackets and held on to whatever we could. I was worried about our luggage, which was stacked haphazardly at the front of the boat. Fortunately the luggage did indeed stay in the boat, as did all 30ish passengers. And while I’m sure the views of the coastline were beautiful, I quickly realized I had to keep my head straight and my eyes looking ahead, for fear I would toss my cookies overboard. A friendly six-year-old boy sitting next to me kept me entertained by telling me this “ride” was the most fun he has had since he rode a roller coaster at Disneyland. I kept to myself the fact that I did not agree.

Yelapa was indeed delightful, and just as sleepy and charming as we expected. And once my feet were on solid ground—and I was sipping a cold beer while taking in the ocean view, as opposed to bumping on a boat in the ocean—the ride became worth it. Especially since I didn’t throw up.