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April 30, 2005

Santa Fe in the sunlight

Just in time for us to leave, the sun came out today, and we enjoyed a lovely morning. The last few days have been chilly, periodically rainy, and almost entirely grey. New Mexico is not at its most attractive when the sun is behind clouds. The browns and oranges of the landscape and the architecture make for kind of a dreary view.

However, this morning, with blue skies, Santa Fe and the countryside come alive. Everything is bright and beautiful. With 300 sunny days a year, this is the normal state of things, but unfortunately until today we were not seeing this part of the country at its best.

Determined to make use of our convertible, we drove the 65 miles back to the Albuquerque airport with the top down and the heat up.

Canyon Road and dinner

Yesterday afternoon we strolled up and down Canyon Road, home to Santa Fe's innumerable galleries. It really is remarkable how many galleries -- and of such high quality -- there are in a city so small. We spent several hours in and out of the galleries, enjoying the art and dodging the chilly, ugly weather that at one point included a brief hailstorm.

At the end of Canyon Road was an excellent teahouse, the appropriately named Tea House. It's a fantastic place for a cup of tea, in a very large space with a variety of chairs, sofas, or floor cushions to sit on.

Dinner was at Geronimo's, which was excellent but, in the end, a touch disappointing. The food was great, but at this price point, you don't want anything to complain about at the end of the meal. We arrived two minutes early for our 7:30 reservation but were not seated until 7:45, even though we saw our table empty for a good five minutes. Janene's salad was decent but nothing special, while we thought our chocolate mousse “martini” was excessively rich and heavy. On the positive side, both our entrees were excellent, and the outdoor table under the heat lamp was pleasant. We liked the meal but think there are other places in town we'd rather try before coming back to Geronimo's.

April 29, 2005

Wanderings

Breakfast at the hotel, followed by more walking through downtown Santa Fe. We spent about an hour at the Palace of the Governors, built in 1610 and the oldest continuously inhabited building in the United States.

Inside is an excellent museum of New Mexico's history since that time. It includes a number of interesting and very well preserved Mexican and Central American artifacts, an intact stagecoach, and a number of interesting photographs.

While in the museum, we ran across an elementary school group with clipboards, searching for various items within the museum. At one point, about eight of the kids were wandering around together, unsupervised by an adult, prompting a security guard to ask where their leader was. Every one of the kids pointed at the smallest girl.

Lunch at Tia Sophia, an excellent and cheap spot for New Mexican food, frequented by both locals and tourists.

The High Road to Taos (part 2)

After leaving our friend the chile expert, we found ourselves back on our way, twice slightly delayed by dogs who were in the middle of the road and didn't really want to let us pass.

Mile after mile of beautiful scenery, and it was lunchtime. Prior to coming to New Mexico, we had done some research on chowhound.com and read about Sugar Nymph Bistro, a small restaurant in a nondescript town, Peñasco, about 20 miles or so south of Taos. It was a great find, the sort of place you'd pass 100 times and never try, but the food was fantastic -- we both had extraordinarily fresh salads with goat cheese, dried cherries, and grilled chicken -- and well worth a lunchtime visit.

We made it to Taos around 2 pm and were a little disappointed. The town has its charms, but we both thought Santa Fe was generally more interesting and less touristy. In this case, it was the journey that was the highlight of the trip, as it was one of the most beautiful drives we've ever been on. The drive back, along the Rio Grande for much of it, was beautiful as well.

Back to the hotel around 5:30 for a pre-dinner rest. We had a very nice meal this evening at Paul's, which we highly recommend.

Tomorrow is our day to explore Santa Fe. We plan to take a self-guided walking tour of the city, and then poke into the shops on Canyon Road, the upscale shopping street here. We'll finish our day with dinner at Geronimo's, our “splurge” meal of the trip.

The High Road to Taos

Pretty full day today. After a decent hotel buffet breakfast, we got in the car around 9:30 to head to Taos, the historic town below the world-famous ski resort. It's also known for being the setting of the commune scene in Easy Rider.

We had hoped to be able to make use of our convertible on this particular drive, but the weather did not want to cooperate. Although it has stayed dry, the high today didn't make it out of the 50s, and the high winds made it feel quite a bit chillier than that. New Mexico may be the desert -- we're reminded of this every time we feel our sandpaper-rough skin -- but this time of the year is not all that warm here, especially at night, when it's been in the 30s.

We opted to take the High Road, the slightly more scenic and curvy route from Santa Fe to Taos. From the very beginning, the setting the stunning. The evergreen-tree-covered desert framed by snow-topped mountains is an unforgettable site. The emptiness of New Mexico is particularly striking. The towns -- often just a collection of buildings -- are miles apart, separated by enormous open spaces. If you ever wanted to withdraw from civilization, New Mexico would be an awfully good place to give it a go.

On the way, we took a short detour to see El Santuario de Chimayo, a well known church known for the miracles that have taken place there as well as its dirt, which is said to have healing powers. The best part of the detour was the three-mile downhill road offering a stunning panorama of the countryside. The church was interesting, but it apparently was a slow day for miracles; we didn't see any. As for the dirt, the jury is still out on its efficacy. I put some on a patch of irritated skin, but 10 hours later it's still irritated. (But imagine how irritated it would have been!).

We were stretching our legs in town and heading back to the car when we were stopped by a guy with a leaf blower outside his restaurant/food stand, Chimayo Holy Chiles.

In his Cheech-and-Chong-like Spanish accent, he asked us if we wanted to see something. We demurred, but he was not the type to take no for an answer. “Isn't that why you're here? To see something really special?” We relented, and he proceeded to show us various chiles, pine nuts, and more that he had for sale.

He was particularly proud of his chile powder. “You could go to 4,004 places and not find anything this good,” Then he corrected himself, “4,007 places.” I asked him what my odds would be of finding something equally good if I went to 5,000 places. Even then, I'd apparently still be wasting my time.

We bought one bag of his chile powder #1 for $6, declining his repeated requests to include a bag of #2 (“but don't forget about #1!”) for an even $10. He was so proud of all his products, and so convinced that we would regret not having any of #2 once we got home, that he threw in a small amount of it for the road -- making me think that his profit margin on #1 was pretty high.

Now a close personal friend, he had much to tell us. When Janene mentioned she's a teacher, he mentioned his wife is too, also a lawyer who's never lost a case. Then he started telling us about the power of positive thinking and how Jesus helped get him a really good deal on a truck and we figured we would have to cancel our dinner reservations pretty soon. I'm not sure how we got away, but eventually we did, and we were on our way.

If you want some of this magical chile powder -- which actually is quite tasty, if overpriced -- along with other local New Mexico specialties, you can call our friend at Chimayo Holy Chiles at (505) 351-4824. If you call, just keep your afternoon free.

April 28, 2005

Knock, knock...

“Dude!”

This wild-haired, drunk-looking, angry-seeming guy is coming toward us. We have just finished dinner at The Shed -- delicious, by the way -- and are crossing the street by the Plaza. There are few people around. We're a little nervous. I'm wondering how much money it's going to take to get him to leave us alone. He starts talking to us before I finish this thought.

“What do you do with a dog who barks too much?”

(pause)

“Put him in a barking lot!”

We laugh.

“C'mon, that was pretty good, right?”

I tell him it's great. Later, I regret not being quick enough to ask him if he knows how to stop a bull from charging.

Wandering around Santa Fe

Got to our Santa Fe hotel, the Inn on the Alameda, around 3:30ish. It's a nice place, combining some of the touches you'd expect from a B&B with the amenities of a larger hotel. We like it.

After freshening up, we explored for a few hours, heading in the direction of the Plaza, Santa Fe's town square, built in 1610. It's very attractive, with similar Native American street vendors as we saw in Albuquerque. (In New Mexico, judging by the signs we've seen, Indian seems to be the more popular designation; it's interesting that the term is considered offensive in most of the country, where Indian/Native Americans are uncommon, but apparently acceptable here, where they are a significant part of the local population. All further evidence that we spend way too much time worrying about such matters, if I may editorialize.)

From there, we wandered around, popping into a handful of galleries in the area. For a small city, Santa Fe has a remarkable amount of artistic talent. Much of the art is not our favorite style, but its very high quality is instantly obvious.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped in the St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral. It's one of the most beautiful churches I've seen. It's not tremendously old -- built about 110 years ago, if I recall -- but the interior is very light, airy, and colorful. The stained glass window above the front entrance is particularly beautiful.

On to dinner at The Shed for some New Mexican cuisine. We're still a bit full from our giant burgers this afternoon.

A burger to remember

At the recommendation of a fellow student in my Italian class, we grabbed lunch at Bobcat Bite, just outside of Santa Fe. It was quite out of our way but the cheeseburger topped with chile was worth every extra mile -- and calorie. Even if the food had been bad, it would have been worth it just to see the place, which clearly hasn't changed in its nearly 50 years.

The place felt comfortable and familiar as soon as we entered. There were six or seven small tables and a long counter inside. All of the servers treated us like we were guests in their home. Most of the customers seemed to be locals stopping in for a bite with old friends.

Prior to lunch, we took the scenic Turquoise Trail from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. The setting was beautiful -- rugged pine-tree-covered hills and snow-capped mountains in the distance. It's amazing how much empty space there is in this part of the country. We passed only about four or five towns in 60-odd miles. The most interesting was Madrid, a hippieish artist enclave about halfway on our drive. Lots of interesting artist studios and an old-fashioned ice cream parlor besides.

In Madrid, we stopped in one pottery studio run by Greg Conley, who is the sort of person you just don't see outside a place like New Mexico. He was heavily bearded, wearing a full Western-style suit, complete with vest, along with a cowboy hat. He was a very nice guy who said he came to visit in 1973 and just kind of wound up there. His work was very nice.

April 27, 2005

Skip Old Town Albuquerque

Blogging from Irish Mac's Coffee House, across the street from the University of New Mexico. It's a very pleasant place for a cup of coffee and to check guidebooks and email.

The plan this morning was to spend an hour or so in Albuquerque before we moved on. Our guidebook had some nice things to say about the Old Town area, so we gave it a go.

The neighborhood has modest charms. It's anchored by a historic and attractive church, Church of San Felipe de Neri, built in Spanish style and celebrating its 300th anniversary next year. The church is on a charming plaza, where we sat and relaxed for 15 minutes or so. Near the plaza are a number of mostly Native American vendors with reasonably nice looking jewelry for sale on a blanket.

But aside from that, Old Town has the same collection of stuff you'll find in every touristy neighborhood in the world. Think Fisherman's Wharf, or Times Square, or the streets around Notre Dame in Paris. The buildings look different, the accents change from place to place, but they're all places to buy postcards, T-shirts, and other knick-knacks. If that's what you're looking for, great, but we always find ourselves preferring the neighborhoods where actual people live. My favorite memories on trips have been the places where we can pretend, if just briefly, that we're residents of the place we're visiting. I'll remember blogging in this nice cafe by the university longer than I'll remember the nondescript souvenir stands in Old Town.

April 26, 2005

¡Buenos tardes, New Mexico!

We're in New Mexico. Our flight was one of the easiest we've ever taken. We pulled away from the gate precisely on time and were in the air seven minutes later -- unprecedented in our experience at O'Hare, where we've often taxied for much longer than that.

The flight to Albuquerque was very smooth until the end, when the pilot descended a bit too steeply for our liking, and when he took an extremely sharp turn very close to the ground -- we thought it was the airborne equivalent of veering off the highway at the last minute to avoid missing the exit. Fortunately, we made it here in one piece, and 30 minutes early besides.

For an extra $6 per day, we upgraded to a nice convertible Chrysler Sebring with only 3 miles on it. The new car smell was included in the price.

We grabbed a quick bite at Frontier Restaurant, a 24-hour diner across the street from the University of New Mexico. It's very cheap and casual, but the food -- burgers as well as a lot of New Mexican options -- was excellent. We don't yet know what makes New Mexican food New Mexican, or what makes it different from Mexican food, but we are looking forward to finding out during the next few days.

The restaurant is on historic Route 66, so before we headed to the hotel, we took a drive to see all of the old neon signs, motor inns, and various other businesses from the road-tripping 1950s. Many of the old hotels are boarded up -- a sad sight -- but there are still plenty of reminders of what the highway must have looked like back in the days before Holiday Inn launched the chain motel era.

Time for a good night's sleep in our luxurious room at the Albuquerque airport La Quinta. The plan is to spend tomorrow morning exploring Albuquerque, and then head to Santa Fe in the afternoon.

A vacation from our “vacation”

The Germany trip wasn't much of a vacation for either one of us, so we're headed to New Mexico this evening. Flying into Albuquerque, where we'll have a quick overnight before driving to Santa Fe the next day. Back on Saturday, in time for Janene to play her Sunday concert with the Northbrook Symphony.

When we booked the trip, Santa Fe seemed like a perfectly nice place to go. Since then, we have been surprised at how many people gush about New Mexico and Santa Fe in particular -- the galleries, the restaurants, the scenery. We're looking forward to seeing for ourselves.

April 03, 2005

Home...at last!

On the plane, several hours from landing in Chicago. We're quite excited to be done with the tour and no longer traveling in a group of nearly 60.

Janene and I are looking forward to taking a proper vacation on our own in the near future. If I blog that one, I'm hoping to have much more material to write about.

Berlin and home

Our second day in Berlin was jam-packed. The day began with a rare treat -- one of the highlights of the tour. We had the opportunity to attend a dress rehearsal with a combined orchestra featuring members of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic, quite possibly the two greatest orchestras in the world. It was the first time these two orchestras have ever played together, and the upcoming evening concert was a huge event in town, with television cameras filming the rehearsal. We're disappointed we couldn't go to the evening's concert -- we went to a good but lesser concert by the Berlin Radio Symphony that evening -- but hearing the rehearsal was something we'll remember for a long time.

The afternoon was incredibly busy, as has been the trend on this trip. We saw a bunch of wonderful things, but mostly from the bus. We tried to pack way too much into the itinerary. We got off the bus to walk through the Brandenburg Gate for 10 minutes, and we got to see the remnants of the Berlin Wall as we drove by at 70 km/hr. We also spent about an hour each at the wonderful Jewish Museum and Pergammon Museum -- a comically insufficient amount of time.

We really enjoyed Berlin but don't feel that we saw anything of the city in the time that we had. We know just enough to know that this is a place that is worth our time.

Day 1 in Berlin

We each had some time to ourselves this afternoon, which, not coincidentally, has one of our favorite parts of the trip so far. Berlin is a wonderful city. We saw just enough of it today to know that we must come back for longer on our own. It has an energy level that matches those of the other great world cities we've been to -- New York, Rome, Paris.

After a morning tour of Sans Souci Palace in Potsdam, we had several hours at leisure to explore the main shopping drag of the city. We ate Currywurst, the local sausage specialty -- fries and sausage with curry ketchup. It was very good, if not entirely healthy.

This evening, while Janene was rehearsing the band prior to the concert, I took a nice walk in this East Berlin neighborhood. It was great to have some time on my own to explore the attractive stores and restaurants in the area. We definitely want to return.

Final concert

Pre-concert warmup for the last concert of the tour. This time we're in a church in the middle of the former East Berlin. The band sounds decent, although as with the last church we played in, the acoustics are kind of boomy, making it tough for the players to hear each other.

The final concert means that we're getting closer to the end of the tour. We are not unhappy about this. Janene has been working harder, and often more stressed, than I've ever seen her. So many problems that need to be resolved, so many opinions to take into consideration, so much worrying about making sure everything goes smoothly -- not to mention problem-solving when it doesn't.

Before we came, I had thought that this would be mostly a working trip, but that it would also be somewhat of a vacation. But with Janene so busy with logistics, and with our constantly-on-the-go schedule, and with the responsibility of watching over 43 teenagers (not to mention 15 adults), it's been nothing but work. Not just for her, but for me too -- and I lack the patience for this type of work. She hasn't been the only one stressed. We're looking forward to getting back to our lives and in charge of our own schedules.