Museum Hack and 5 Reasons DC’s National Gallery of Art is the ‘Best Museum in the Entire Country’

Assassinations, forgeries, illicit affairs–of both the straight and not-straight variety—Disney’s “Little Mermaid conspiracy theories and shark attacks. If any of these things interest you (and, let’s be honest: ALL of these should absolutely interest you), then you need to go on a Museum Hack “Un-Highlights” tour of the National Gallery of Art the next time you’re in D.C.

Museum Hack
Museum Hack’s motto

Museum Hack is a company that host hundreds of tours at museums in cities across the U.S., including New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. But, as the name suggests, this company is out to hack the usual generic museum tour and make you fall in love with museums. The best part is that they do it in the sneakiest way: By employing a fun, irreverent, renegade group of museum lovers/tour guides to tell you all the juiciest stories behind those staid, stagnant pieces of art work.

Hannah was my excellent and entertaining guide during my two-hour tour of the National Gallery of Art, which she definitively declared (on more than one occasion) as the best museum in the entire country.

Museum Hack Hannah
Museum Hack Hannah

By the end, I think she had me and my fellow newly-initiated art lovers (Chris, Michele and teenager Ben–all from California) completely convinced and ready to argue the fact with anyone who disagreed.

Here are 5 of Hannah’s most compelling reasons.

1) Because it was built on the site of a presidential assassination

And surprisingly, not too many museums can say that! The National Gallery of Art occupies the former location of the Baltimore & Potomac Railway train station. It was here, in July 1881 that President James Garfield—seeking to escaping D.C.’s oppressive summer heat with a little lobster-roll-filled vacay in New England–was shot by an assassin on the station platform. The nation’s 20th president then lingered for 11 weeks before finally dying in a most gruesome and puss-filled fashion. Then some other stuff happened and the National Gallery of Art was built and opened in 1941.

2) “Museum sugar daddy” aka Andrew Mellon aka Hannah’s main man.

Listen, we wouldn’t even have a museum to hack if it wasn’t for ol’Mr. Mellon. Man, it is good to be rich. And if you’re going to be rich, you’ve got to find a way to spend that cash, preferably in a manner that will give you some major street cred, or a lasting legacy of beneficence. Mellon was, of course, a well-travelled man, and when he saw London’s National Gallery and realized that America didn’t really have anything equivalent to a national art collection in the United States, he said, “Let’s do this.”

3) The National Gallery holds the only painting by Leonardo Da Vinci on public view in the Americas.

Just let that sink in for a minute, because I had to when I heard it.

Da Vinci's Ginevra de'Benci

What is widely considered the finest example of a Da Vinci painting—the double-sided “Ginevra de’Benci” —was acquired by the National Gallery after a protracted MMA-style museum-fight throw down with a ton of other museums, most notably, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At the end of the odd and protracted negotiations with the Princely House of Lichtenstein, the Alisa Mellon Bruce Foundation (yes, those art-loving Mellons came to the rescue again), paid $5 million—a record in 1967—to bring Da Vinci’s first portrait and first work done exclusively in oil to D.C. Interesting side note: the $5 million supposedly went to pay off the gambling debts of the Prince of Lichtenstein. And the Met was left without a Da Vinci, which then led them to say all kinds of mean things about the painting in the New York Times. Talk about sore losers.

4) An amazing collection of Impressionist and French art (including a fake Van Gogh)

American banker and patron of the arts Chester Dale liked to play games. His primary source of fun was to lend out pieces of his amazing collection of French paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries (which he referred to as his “children”) to various museums throughout the country and then recall them at a moment’s notice when he missed them. No one dared say no because they were all hoping for the big prize—an endowment of his collection when he passed on to the great bank in the sky.

The National Gallery won, becoming the recipient of over 240 paintings, including a fake Van Gogh self-portrait that Dale apparently knew was a fake, but kept on the DL, saying, “As long as I’m alive, it’s a Van Gogh.”

Fake Van Gogh
Fake Van Gogh

5) It holds the largest collection of Edgar Degas sculptures in the world (again, thanks Mellons!)

This time it was Paul Mellon who had the good sense to snap up most of the collection when it became available at a New York exhibit in 1955 for the insanely low price of $400,000. The National Gallery owns 52 of the surviving 69 sculptures Degas created in his lifetime, including the original “Little Dancer” sculpture. You’ll see bronze copies of the “Little Dancer” at museums around the world, but the National Gallery has the original beeswax and found objects sculpture which features real human hair and tulle.

Little Dancer at the National Gallery of Art

So that’s 5 reasons, but honestly, Hannah gave us a ton more. For example, we got to participate in a tableaux vivant, which is a live recreation of a work of art. Ours involved a painting of London Mayor Sir Brook Watson, who lost a leg in a shark attack and then convinced artist John Singleton Copley to paint a recreation of the whole shark fight/rescue. I don’t know what the tableaux vivants at the other Museum Hack tours involve, but ours has to rank up there as pretty badass.

Museum Hack tableaux vivant
Our Copley reenactment. I’m using my purse as shark jaws (I was the shark, in case that isn’t clear).

And I didn’t even get to the story about the lesbian Queen of Sweden who abdicated her Lutheran throne to become Catholic, thereby earning her apartments at the Vatican where she proceeded to hang the portrait of her former “bedfellow” Countess Ebba Sparre in her room at the Vatican. Tsk, tsk, you naughty minx.

Or the painting of Guiliano de’Medici who was killed during Easter mass in the Florence Cathedral in front of about 10,000 worshippers, which is recreated in the “Assassin’s Creed” video game.

Or the Van Dyck painting of Queen Henrietta and her dwarf, the very interesting and resilient Sir Jeffrey Hudson.

Or the super swaggish, Beyonce-posing Andries Stilte (and his modern day contemporaries brought to us by Kehinde Wiley).

National Gallery of Art
Making it rain (sort of) in the National Gallery’s Stuart room.

We also played games like “Find Ginevra a New Man” and “Match the Emoji to the Painting” and “Pose Like a French Statue.” Those are not official game titles, but you get the idea. Plus there was some elicit chocolate sneaking, and pictures and prizes at the end.

Seriously, I don’t know if I’ll ever look at a museum tour the same way again.

Museum Hack provided me with this tour free of charge. The opinions expressed here are my own, because, if you know me, you know I freely give my opinions. 

 

 

 

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Hotel Crashing: Signature Amaya Kandalama, Sri Lanka

So here’s a basic outline of our first day (2 days) getting to/and/around Sri Lanka.

  • A 14-hour flight from D.C. to Seoul on Korean Air First Class.
  • A 6-hour layover at the Seoul Airport.
  • An 8-hour flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka.
  • Land at 3:15 a.m. and meet our driver, Tillie.
  • Drive about 3.5 hours in the darkness (and occassional rain) to Dambulla Cave Temples, dodging school children, dogs, tuk tuks, roadside stalls with open fires, etc. all along the way.
  • Climb 350 very steep, very slippery and uneven stone stairs in oppressive heat and humidity to see said Cave Temples. (no air conditioning, obviously)
  • Spend $2 to recover in the small but well done (and, more importantly…air conditioned) Cave Temple Museum
  • Drive 15 minutes or so to Signature Amaya Kandalama and collapse.

First Class Korean Beer

Honestly, Signature Amaya Kandalama could have been a roach hotel and I would not have given a flying Fig Newton. I probably still would have declared it the most luxurious and wonderful accommodations ever known to man.

Sigiriya Rock Sri Lanka
Sigiriya Rock, aka “Hell-to-the-Nah Rock”

Luckily, it was not a roach hotel. Not at all. It’s pretty upscale for Sri Lanka. It actually reminded me of some of the resorts we’ve stayed at in other tropical locales. In fact, the Sri Lanka National Cricket team was staying there the same time as us (they apparently had a match in Dambulla).

Continue reading Hotel Crashing: Signature Amaya Kandalama, Sri Lanka

An Overview of Sri Lanka, Privileged Tourism and Getting in My Own Head

On paper, Sri Lanka was a no brainer for us—our logical next vacation destination. It has a lot of the things we gravitate towards as travelers—we like South/Southeast Asia (admittedly, one of us a bit more than the other). We love the spicy food in this area of the world, with the focus on fresh fish and vegetables. We like learning about a new country’s history, architecture, and culture. Sri Lanka presented us with plenty to see and do, the weather was warm (which always means there’s a good excuse to spend the afternoon by a pool with a cold local beer). And it’s very, very affordable.

Sri Lankan curry
The curry in Sri Lanka was out of this world.

 

Sri Lanka is very much trying to put its recent violent past behind it, but devoting so many resources to fighting a civil war has definitely left the country a bit behind the eight ball as far as development goes. It is very, very poor and people are struggling. They’re relying on tourism to help economically and, from a marketing standpoint at least, it appears to be working.

All during our year of planning, we kept hearing about other people who were going or had just been to Sri Lanka. I don’t know if it was because it was finally on our radar or if it had just reached the popularity tipping point, but all of a sudden, it seemed like Sri Lanka was more sought after than a hot cheerleader at prom (or, a Harvard acceptance letter. Shoutout to ya, Priscilla Samey). Bloomberg added Sri Lanka to its list of 20 places to go in 2017, Huffington Post said it was the one country you should go to in 2017, and even that travel authority Vogue declared it a “destination that stimulates all the senses.”

Sri Lanka sunset
Postcard material, courtesy of Sri Lanka. I took this picture. With a point and shoot camera. No filter.  Sunsets really did look like this.

The Lay of the Land

Sri Lanka is certainly diverse in terms of geography. This former Portuguese/Dutch/British colony—aka Ceylon—has beautiful beaches to the south (packed with foreigners, we noticed). The cooler, hilly mid-part of the country is much cooler and is incredibly lush, green and misty, and packed with tea fields/plantations (full of visiting tourists and smacking of British colonialism still). The northern, historic Golden Triangle area has caves and crumbling temple cities and all the accompanying tourists turning bright pink under the scorching sun.

Polonnaruwa temple
Sweating it out at Polonnaruwa temple

Sri Lanka is also quite the hikers’ paradise and everywhere we went—from the mountaintop cave temples at Sigiriya Rock Fortress and Dambulla to Adam’s Peak and Horton Plains Park near Ella, there were opportunities to slip and slide over some dangerous trails—if you could stand the heat and oppressive humidity (we could not).

Dambulla caves
At least it was cool (if a bit crowded) at the fabulous Dambulla Cave Temple in northern Sri Lanka.

Instead, we drove. Or, more accurately, we rode in the backseat while our driver Tillie ferried us around the country for 10 days. During that time, we saw wild elephants lumbering along the side of the road (there are over 2,000 wild elephants in Sri Lanka). We drank from king coconuts, including one we purchased for 400 rupees from a man on the side of the road with his teeth stained red from chewing betel leaves, mixed with tobacco, and areca nut. We rode a very old train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella. We spent a confusing and sweaty morning wandering around the old Dutch fort town of Galle–confusing because nothing, even churches, appeared to be open that day, and yet we almost got swept up in some sort of parade of some sorts. We talked to giggling school children who wanted to practice their English at the otherwise disappointing Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy. And we ate. And ate. And ate.

Temple of the Tooth Relic, Kandy
An offering station at the very crowded and rather underwhelming Temple of the Tooth Relic.

As Vogue noted, Sri Lanka does stimulate all the senses. But the biggest “sense” it stimulated in me was a sense of déjà vu and maybe, even, just the slightest bit of a letdown, which, I know, sounds maybe a bit harsh.

What’s the Problem, Poe?

As we’ve previously encountered in other countries in Southeast Asia (I’m looking at you, Bali. And Thailand), there’s this major confusion over what tourists want, with a heavy reliance on tourist traps, whether it’s “turtle hatcheries” that house a collection of sad, little cement enclosures too small for the turtles living in them, or the “tsunami photo museums” which had neither photos (they were faded color print-outs from the Internet) nor were organized in anything resembling a museum.

Vendor in Galle
Vendor in Galle selling cool “joos.” NOT a tourist trap. 

Then there were all the tourist traps we just said, “no” to: wooden mask carvers, the multiple spice farms, the elephant sanctuaries, the moonstone mines, the stilt fishermen—all of which are (generally) staged, and less focused on education/more focused on accepting donations/taking photos in exchange for donations.

This reliance on tourist traps in a depressed economy is completely understandable. It is a very, very poor country. The people are struggling and are trying to find ways to get by—and increasingly, that seems to be relying on tourism. The saddest bit is the clustering and proliferation of one particular type of tourist trap. Instead of one spice farm or turtle hatchery, there would be like, 20 of them, all identical and all lined up right next to each other.

Railroad crossing in Sri Lanka
Tuk tuks at a railroad crossing in Sri Lanka

In the end, it all just comes off as feeling very exploitative – on both sides. I hate saying, “no thank you,” repeatedly. I feel defensive and like I have to keep pushing people away who really need the money and why don’t I just go to the damn moonstone mine and buy some damn moonstones even if I don’t want or need them?

Or, when we do cave in and visit one of these places, I end up feeling like it wasn’t a great experience and like I didn’t really learn anything. I feel self-conscious, looking at these sad, little makeshift tourist traps and expecting more. I feel like I missed the disclaimer that screams “all this place is supposed to do is elicit enough sympathy to make you reach into your pockets and throw some money at your guilt.”

Sri Lanka wedding
A Hindu wedding in Sri Lanka (NOT a tourist display….at least as far as I know).

So that was my struggle with Sri Lanka. And with travel and tourism in general. I know there are countries out there that need it, that are counting on it, and that want us to come and visit and spend our money. So go. Go see places, even if they might make you uncomfortable, even if they might make you sad or confused. Go and see if you can spot a wild elephant, slowly weaving its way in and out of the trees along the side of the road on a cool morning in the middle of Sri Lanka.

Wild elephant in Sri Lanka

 

Definitely Not the Happiest Place on Earth: Cambodia’s S-21 and the Killing Fields

I suppose it is entirely possible to go to Cambodia, and Phnom Penh in particular, without going to see the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or Choeung Ek.

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There are in fact, other things to see in Phnom Penh. The city once known as “the Paris of the East” is on the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers, so you could escape the heat and humidity by taking a boat ride.

The ridiculously ornate Royal Palace is in Phnom Penh. We went, but it ended up making me so angry. To see all that manicured and gilded opulence while right outside the walls the trash is piled up and there’s no clean drinking water or basic sanitation just really chapped my hide.

Phnom Penh

The National Museum of Cambodia is also in Phnom Penh. We went. It was a bit of a let down. Not too many items on display. Perhaps understandably. There are a lot of open-air markets selling cheap tourist stuff, mostly made in China. We went through a few, bought a few trinkets.

But really, unfortunately, the main tourist attractions in Phnom Penh are those tied to it’s horrific, recent past.

I had done a lot of reading about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge before our trip. I thought I was pretty prepared, but how could anyone be prepared for such sadness? Knowing about the fight to overthrow French colonization and the roots and growth of the Communist Party in Southeast Asia doesn’t explain genocide. Reading about the motivations of Pol Pot and his party — to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society in which there were no rich people, no poor people — doesn’t make their subsequent actions any more rational.

But it’s very much a living, breathing history. You can see the effects everywhere. The countryside is still riddled with millions of mines. You see people with missing limbs begging outside of Tuol Sleng and Cheong Uk. The median age is 21.7 years, and only 3.6% of the population is over the age of 65. (In comparison, 12.6% of US citizens are over 65.)

We hired a tour guide to take us to Tuol Sleng and Cheong Uk. Her name was Maria. She seemed pretty young in her salmon-colored tour guide button up shirt. Her accent was very thick and we had to lean in close to understand what she was saying and even then, we only caught every third word.

She told us that she was born after her country was liberated from the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese. She has an older brother who was young during the revolution and still remembers it.  And her mother, of course. Her mother’s first husband was killed during the regime, she thinks it was at Tuol Sleng (also known as S-21), but they’re not sure. He might just as easily have been trucked out to Cheong Uk (also known as the Killing Fields.)

I was actually a little stunned by how seemingly emotionless she was while she told us all this. I asked her if it bothered her, talking about her family, but she just shrugged and said it was part of her people’s history and that it’s better to talk about it. I tried not to ask anymore questions. I focused on just taking in the information and being respectful.

Our first stop was Tuol Sleng.

Tuol Sleng is a former high school that was used by the Khmer Rouge as a torture camp, prison and execution center. From the outside, it looks like any high school – five buildings surround a quiet grass courtyard where kids might have played during recess.

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But then you notice the list of rules with warnings of punishment by shocks of electric, and you realize — this stopped being a school a long time ago.

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Former prison staff say as many as 14,000 prisoners were held at S-21 before the Khmer Rouge leadership was forced to flee, in the first days of 1979. There are only seven known survivors of S-21, one of whom, Chum Mey, sells his book on the S-21 grounds. I don’t know how he can come back to that place everyday. He’s obviously made of some strong stuff.

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Visitors walk through cells still containing the rusted chairs and beds where prisoners were tortured and killed. Inside are displays of the weapons of torture, skulls, blood stains and 114 small black and white photographs — just a sampling of the photos of the thousands of people who were murdered here. (The Khmer Rouge were meticulous record keepers, compiling “confessions” and documenting everyone who passed through).

It’s a pretty solemn place. It felt weird even taking pictures. I probably only took 6-7 half-hearted photos. It just didn’t feel right.

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But this one below is my favorite photo from the whole day.

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I don’t know anything about him, but I love this guy. I don’t know if he’s smiling out of defiance, or he has no idea what’s about to happen to him (that seems highly unlikely) or if it’s just natural instinct when he saw the camera, but I am fascinated by that picture and that smile and what it might be saying. You do not see many grins at S-21, that’s for sure.

After our time at S-21, we took a short drive out to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields.

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Choeung Ek is just one of thousands of other such sites around the country (Killing Fields) where the Khmer Rouge practiced genocide. You could basically be killed for any reason — you were Chinese, you were an intellectual, you were a threat to the Communist regime, you had a family member who was a suspected spy, you wore glasses (a sign of being an intellectual) — or for no reason at all.

The Choeung Ek killing fields are about the size of a soccer field and are surrounded by farm land. It contains mass graves, slightly sunken, for as many as 20,000 Cambodians–including women, children and infants — many of whom were tortured at S-21 before being killed. This was a place where people were brought to die, not be held prisoner.

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To save bullets, the Khmer Rouge used a variety of execution techniques, but especially bludgeoning with whatever handy instrument might be laying around. They also hung loudspeakers from the trees and played music to drown out the screams of those being tortured and killed, anywhere from a few dozen to over three hundred people a day.IMG_2909

A memorial building – a Buddhist stupa — was built in 1988 and stands in the center of the killing fields. Many of the 8,000 skulls inside were pulled from the mass graves.

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It was another very quiet, solemn, almost peaceful place, which feels very weird to say, considering what it was — a place of torture and death. We did not stay very long. Again, it just felt so weird and wrong to even be there.

There was an audio guide that apparently goes into a lot of detail, but we chose not to listen. I think what we were seeing was horrific enough.

I’m not a religious person. I don’t believe in an afterlife or ghosts hanging about or anything even remotely like that. But I will say, there is something very moving and just–heavy–about a place like Cheoung Ek. You don’t have to be a spiritual or religious person to have respect for history and needless suffering.

Nonetheless, walking into a glass tower containing thousands of skulls, matter-of-factly lined up, with tiny colored dots telling you how they think they might have died was just shocking. No book can really prepare you for that.

At the end of the day, I’m trying to understand what they’re doing here with the stupa, how they remember and honor their dead. I’m trying to understand a tour guide who calmly tells you her stepdad and her grandfather were murdered while showing you around an execution site. I’m trying to understand how a young man who’s about to be tortured and murdered can smile for a camera. I’m trying to understand how a man who was imprisoned in an execution site and saw his wife and son murdered right in front of him can step foot in that facility everyday without collapsing into tears and anger.

I may be uncomfortable with how closely and nonchalantly Cambodians live with their recent history, how it’s turned into a tourist attraction, but that’s my own discomfort. What do I know about that kind of suffering?  They lived through all this and more. And they’re still living through it.

Singapore: First Impressions

Hey there! I’m back.

Actually, I’ve been back for about a week or so, but between jet lag, and digging out of email/work/laundry, I haven’t even had a minute to start going through my photos and trip notes and coming up with some blog fodder.

But, this morning’s news is reporting on the death of Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. So I better get my ass in gear and write something about my recent first visit to Singapore.

Marina Bay Sands
Things to know about Singapore: it’s really, really hot.

My travel-buddy/man-panion for life (XFE) and I actually learned a bit about Lee Kuan Yew at the very excellent National Museum of Singapore. We had gone to the museum primarily to escape the pervasive, bone-soaking, spirit-wilting heat and humidity that is Singapore in early March. The museum is in a blended building, half white colonial stucco, half modern cubist wonder surrounded by rolling green hills and landscaped trees. The important thing and main draw for us was the existence of the blasting, government-subsidized air conditioning.

Disappointingly, the majority of the museum and its exhibits were closed for renovations. But, they did have a condensed, Clif Notes version of the museum’s contents in the basement. It was a really great exhibit. The first part was a bit confusing, something about five kings and a boy who fought a giant swordfish and then was killed by the Sultan who feared him. Anyway, a big mix of legends and facts.

But things really picked up with some great exhibits on the different ethnic groups and immigrants that had come to Singapore when it was a colonial entrepot and trading post. The museum also had a great exhibit on Singapore’s occupation by Japan in World War II, and a brief exhibit on Singapore’s separation from Britain, the city-state’s internal struggle to become independent and self-governed, and it’s brief stint as part of the Federation of Malaysia.

A big player in Singapore was Lee, who was elected as the country’s first Prime Minister in 1959, and served in that capacity until 1990 (He remained a “senior minister” in the Cabinet until 2004, and “minister mentor” till 2011.) Quartz describes Lee’s ruling style best:

Lee led Singapore from a colonial backwater under British control to one of the world’s most thriving financial centers, and he did so with a tight grip on power. He has been criticized for instituting wide-reaching censorship, limiting civil rights, discriminating against gays and migrant workers, and generally maintaining a one-party autocracy for almost half a century.

That’s because Lee engineered one of the world’s most impressive growth stories—one that everyone from American Republicans to Chinese communists have both openly envied. (“Benevolent dictatorship has never looked so good” one columnist wrote of the Singapore in 2012.)

The tiny, resource-poor country’s GDP per capita skyrocketed under Lee to one of the highest in the world, behind just oil-rich Qatar and private banking center Luxembourg, according to the IMF.

We actually got a bit of a glimpse into the general public’s discontent with this one-party autocracy situation. We were in a cab one evening on our way to the Supertree Grove at Gardens by the Bay, a Las Vegas-worthy light and music show involving these tree-like structures that soar up to 160 feet.

Gardens by the Bay

Anyway, our cab driver asked us where we were from, and then launched into a grumbling monologue of discontent with his government’s structure. He told us that they’d had the same ruler/ruling party for six decades (Lee’s son is the current Prime Minister), and that wasn’t democracy, and how the people of Singapore have suffered under this dictatorship. He said the rich were getting richer while the poor were getting poorer.

I have to admit: I was shocked and more than a little annoyed. I was in the middle of reading a book about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge — a book about a horrific history in which real humanitarian atrocities were perpetrated by a real political wackjob dictator. Meanwhile, everywhere I looked in Singapore was prosperous and new and shiny and so technologically advanced.

But that cab driver’s rant is not unfamiliar to me. Not at all. You hear it in the U.S. all the time, especially the phrase, “the rich are getting richer while the rest of us get poorer.” I’m sure if I’d dug a little deeper, he would have blamed immigrants, or corporations, or the educational system, or real estate prices, or whatever other boogeyman he was currently facing or competing against.

Perspective is a luxury, I guess. I understand that on a random Tuesday a cab driver in Singapore is not likely to think about how there are people in other parts of the world, say, Cambodia for example, who are just trying to recover from brutal histories and get to somewhere even remotely as economically advanced as Singapore. We all grumble and bemoan our own political systems, and don’t care or think about who our audience is or what perspectives they bring to the table. It’s practically a human trait to complain about other people doing better than we perceive ourselves to be doing.

I don’t know if Lee was a horrible leader. I don’t know if that cab driver in Singapore might have been richer if a new, completely different party was elected every four years. There are certainly some people in the U.S. who would say that no, a new party doesn’t necessarily mean prosperity, or even anything remotely like it. But it does seem to me, an outsider, that Singapore–a small island nation with no natural resources that was practically decimated in World War II–did alright at the end of the day. It’s a good legacy to have.

Singapore night view

(Here’s another really good Quartz article on the rise of Singapore under Lee’s policies.)

Time Travel to Another Naples: The Bourbon Tunnel

In Italy, December 8 is a national holiday. Something about a feast and some reception and being really, really clean, like immaculate.

I don’t know all the details, but there was a parade with red banners and gold fringe. And a lot of offices and government buildings were closed, and everybody was out and about, shopping and eating.

Neapolitan parade

As far as I can tell, it’s the equivalent of Black Friday. The streets were mobbed with families pushing strollers and carting shopping bags.

Since I’m a good little tourist, I knew that it was a national holiday and tried to plan my visit around it.

I used it as an excuse to visit an underground escape route.

Naples has quite a vibrant little underground scene. I’m not talking “underground” as in, sketchy clubs and coffee houses frequented by emo kids looking to get buzzed while listening to My Chemical Romance (I’m not even sure that reference is accurate. What do emo kids listen to? Is anyone called emo anymore?).

I digress. What I mean is underground structures that you can visit in Naples. Like tunnels, catacombs, cisterns and bomb shelters. It’s surprising that streets don’t just collapse upon themselves since they’re seemingly built over the urban planning equivalent of Swiss cheese.

One of these underground tours was located right near my hotel. And, as luck would have it, it was only open Fri-Sunday and on Holy Days. Which included the National Holiday of Feasting on Immaculate Libation Day.

The Tunnel Borbonico, or Bourbon Tunnel, is down a small alley off the left hand side of a very small street off a slightly larger street off the Plaza Del Plebiscito. Basically, if you make it all the way down the street to the church, you’ve gone too far. Also, there’s a bike barrier blocking the alley, so….look for that.

Bourbon Tunnel entrance
Signage for the Bourbon Tunnel.

There’s another entrance/exit at a very posh parking garage nearby. I’m not sure if that’s easier or not, but it does provide a nice excuse to go shopping (although, you’d then have to carry all your bags through the tunnels).

The tours are at 10, noon, 1:30 and 5:30. Me, and the rest of holiday-making Naples, showed up for the 1:30 tour. The place was packed. There was a small holding area for the groups and it was brimming with people. All of them, as far as I could tell, Italian.

Sure enough, a diminutive and perky English-speaking tour guide (I think her name was Sarah?) comes in and calls for all us foreigners and I’m the only one who steps up. My 10 euros got me a private tour. (You’re not allowed to take pictures, so most of the following pictures are from the Bourbon Tunnel website and are linked)

Sarah explained the history of the tunnel as we proceed down a very narrow and cramped stone stairwell. It was conceived in 1853 by Ferdinand II of Bourbon as an escape route from the Royal Palace to the nearby naval barracks. You see, Bourbons had had a rough time of the whole king business, particularly in Italy.

In fact, turns out that trusting the Neapolitan military probably wouldn’t have been a good move for Ferdinand. In 1856, a soldier attempted to assassinate him, and it’s believed that the infection he received from the soldier’s bayonet led to his ultimate demise.

Ferdinand’s tunnel was never really finished during his shaky tenure on the throne. That’s because Ferdinand had some seriously grandiose plans for what was essentially a “get out of Dodge” tunnel. He wanted a whole underground world with shops and other distractions. He drove the poor architect, Errico Alvino, crazy with his add ons and demands.

The tunnel runs about 530 meters long, and 30 meters underground, and is full of caverns and evidence of it’s past as a aqueduct system that provided water for this area of Naples until the mid-1800s. Sarah, who was very much working on her Hollywood-style teaser hype (“You’ll never believe what happened next. Follow me to find out more!”) told me how workers tasked with cleaning and maintaining the wells would sometimes use them to sneak into the wealthy houses to steal from them during the night. And, sometimes, they would get frisky with the lady of the house and nine months later, the equivalent of the milkman’s kid. (She told me the Italian phrase for it but I can’t find it in my notes.)

During World War II, the tunnel and aqueducts were used as an air raid shelter and makeshift military hospital. All told, nearly 10,000 Neapolitans took shelter there throughout the massive German bombings. People whose homes were destroyed moved down into the tunnels permanently. There is tons of debris – handwritten messages on the walls, abandoned toys and household items. It was actually very moving.

After the war, the tunnels were used by the police as an impound lot until the 1970s. Several cars, motorcycles, and, of course, Italian scooters are still down there covered in dust. Finally, the tunnel was used as a sort of municipal dump, with people throwing piles of garbage down there (including dismantled statues), until 2005, when the Associazione Culturale Borbonica Sotteranea began a five year restoration effort and opened it to the public.

It was a lot of history for an hour-and-a-half tour. As I made my way up and out and back into the crowded streets, I thought a lot about the many lives of that tunnel, and the resourcefulness of the Neapolitan people, and how there can be a whole other world of living history right under your feet. How you can miss the whole thing, if you don’t know it’s there, or if you get lost on a tiny side street on your way to an even tinier alley. You really have to pay attention and look hard at things you might take for granted, I guess.

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The only picture I was allowed to take with my camera, at the end of the tour, looking back at the tunnel.

Ultimately, I decided to the whole situation might be better considered over a pizza and some wine. It was the Italian National Holiday of Feasting on Immaculate Libation Day, after all.

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Pompeii’s Erotica: If It’s in a Museum, It Must Be Art

So, apparently, Pompeii is old Italian for “penis.”

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This one is carved into the cobblestone.

Yeah, I know, right? Nobody saw that coming.

But they are everywhere at the ancient Roman town-city near Naples.

Pompeii has long been on my travel bucket list. Why yes, I am aware that my travel bucket list is incredibly lame. It also includes visiting 221B Baker Street and that Japanese island inhabited by cats. (If you click on that link, be prepared to squee. That second picture slays me.)

Vesuvius looming over Pompeii.
Vesuvius looming over Pompeii.

Pompeii has always fascinated me. The fact that there was the very affluent and sophisticated city completely frozen in time has always had a hold on me. I also found it hauntingly ironic that the city motto was something along the lines of: “enjoy life while you can for tomorrow is uncertain.” Especially when you live in the shadow of an active volcano.

So I was quite geeked out when my tour companion for life, XFE agreed to take me to Pompeii, even though he’d been there on a previous trip. I was so excited to go to a place I had read about in awe as a nerdy, history-loving pre-teen.

But after visiting, I’m now worried that the adults in my life probably thought I was a pervert looking at dick pics in her bedroom all that time, and not a nerdy, history-loving pre-teen.

Squint. There's a penis there.
Squint. There’s a penis there.

Somehow, in all my reading about Pompeii, I had missed out on the fact that the place was basically some sort of “50 Shades of Pompeii” sexual playground. AncientDigger.com explains:

Sex was a completely normal and fulfilling experiencing in Pompeii, and most of what we know about the eroticism that took place there was left on the walls….Some of the most recognizable and erotic art and archaeological finds in Pompeii were statues, large pools, and several murals of Priapus.

It is important to remember that all of the artwork in Pompeii discovered thus far has a much deeper meaning for the people that lived there. The Pompeians were enamored with eros and this obsession drove them to experiment with love, take risks with questionably clean prostitutes, and often drove men to partake in lewd acts with anything with a pulse. Is this the reason for the amount of sex that took place at Pompeii? Possibly.

….

Pre-Socratic philosophers believed Eros was a natural force responsible for creation. It was not just good or bad, but destructive. Eros was vital because it operated as a social concept, yet it had moral implications. It was hard to control because in many cases, individuals would become slaves to it. This may have been the case in Pompeii.

Oh dear.

Well, just know: Penises are everywhere at Pompeii.

Pompeii bordello art.
Pompeii bordello art.

They’re engraved on the streets.

They’re on the walls.

Pompeii bordello art

And, they’re in Naples’ exceedingly excellent National Archaeological Museum.

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In fact, they have a whole “Secret Room” devoted to erotica from Pompeii.

Not-so-secret room at the National Archaeological Museum
Not-so-secret room at the National Archaeological Museum

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I guess it’s like San Diego, which allegedly is German for a lady whale’s lady parts (thanks, Katie, for the reminder and insistence that I find this gif).

Stalking Stateliness: A Visit to The Royal Palace in Naples

Hey, you know what I love? I mother f*#$k-ing stately home.

I cannot get enough of some grandiose living spaces, y’all. Something with tons of tapestries and baroque stone carved curlicues and some of those stucco putti kids and anterooms to rooms that serve no discernible purpose.

Show me a medal room. Show me a salon. Show me a hall of mirrors. Show me anything that screams over-the-top “Renaissance-in-the-style-of-Kim-and-Kanye.”

Ceiling at the Royal Palace, Naples
Subtle, yes?

I will gladly plunk down 7 euros (around $10) to breathe in your musty antiquities.

The Royal Palace of Naples did not disappoint in any of the categories in my mental “Stuff That A Mother F*#$k-ing Stately Home Should Have” list.

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Just to get some history and context out of the way, according to Wikipedia, the Royal Palace of Naples:

was one of the four residences near Naples used by the Bourbon Kings during their rule of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies(1730-1860). Construction on the present building was begun in the 17th century by the architect Domenico Fontana. Intended to house the King Philip III of Spain on a visit never fulfilled to this part of his kingdom, instead it initially housed the Viceroy Fernando Ruiz de Castro, earl of Lemos…In 1734, with the arrival of Charles III of Spain to Naples, the palace became the royal residence of the Bourbons.

And man, did those Bourbons know how to live it up. They started renovating the hell out of the place, adding the theater, rebuilding the great hall, and adding a new wing. Also, this cool escape tunnel from the palace to the coast to help the monarchy escape the often-rebellious people of Naples. Apparently, the French Bourbons weren’t the only ones who had problems with the populace. (I visited the tunnel too, but we’ll talk about that in another post.)

Things at the Palace got even fancier during the Napoleonic occupation, when Napoleon’s dandy of a brother-in-law Joachim Murat took over the palace. Check. Out. That. Hair. He’s like Prince or something. Loving it.

Joachim Murat

By the way, Murat’s last words while facing a firing squad after the whole Napoleon-getting-overthrown business, were: “Soldiers! Do your duty! Straight to the heart but spare the face.” Holy vanity, that is amazing. This dude? Baller.

Today, the Palace and the adjacent grounds are open to the public. There are all kinds of pseudo-government offices in there, including the Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III. That, coupled with the fact that there’s a ton of construction and restoration work being done on both the inside and the outside of the Palace makes the whole visitor experience a little confusing.

Front of the Royal Palace, Naples
This is what the front currently looks like. Not cute.

But I’ve never been one to let a little hammering and scaffolding get in the way of looking at ridiculously ornate tabletop time pieces and portraits of dead fancy people.

side view of the Royal Palace, Naples
This is what the side of the Palace currently looks like. No scaffolding. Much cuter.

I wandered around a bit confused and overwhelmed on a chilly Tuesday morning, the weak December light making everything a bit more cold and austere and milky white.

Entry hall at the Royal Palace, Naples

I had an English audio guide lodged firmly to my ear, which made me unself-conscious enough to gawk freely at the restorers delicately dremeling the pale marble decorations along the entry staircase. I could always just point to the thing at my ear, and shrug if anyone stopped to stare back at me.

Entry hall at the Royal Palace, Naples

I walked past sleeping docents guarding empty theater rooms, their eyelids drooping like the old velvet curtains framing the stage.

Theater at the Royal Palace, Naples

I leaned in close to ornately inlaid wooden tables/bird cages/topiary holders staged in the middle of an otherwise-sparsely furnished room next to a single, stiff chair.

A Throne Room at the Royal Palace, Naples

I listened to two docents chattering away in Italian, pointing at their newspapers and waving their hands while keeping their elbows by their waists and glancing around to see if anyone else was around. When they glanced at me, I quickly became engrossed in a Sevres vase.

A Throne Room at the Royal Palace, Naples

I stood in awe in front of the ridiculously complex precipe (or nativity scene) housed in a chapel and sponsored by a bank. The true meeting of capitalism and religion.

Precipe at the Royal Palace, Naples

I wandered on, through a throne room or two (one for the king, one for the queen), the king’s study, the private apartments, the Hall of Hercules (a ballroom), a music room, a tiny little prayer closet for the queen.

Chapel at the Royal Palace, Naples

All in all, I probably spent about two hours engrossed in bygone splendor, only interrupted by my inability to figure out the sequential order on my audio guide (the rooms were supposedly numbered to correspond, but I could hardly find the numbers and just started guessing.)

That was fine by me. One should stroll through a mother f*#$k-ing stately home, not rush.

Wars, Orphans and Orbs: Dubrovnik’s Old Town

My travel buddy for life XFE and I live in a part of Northern Virginia/Greater Washington DC area known as Old Town. It’s pretty cute. Full of cobblestone sidewalks, antique shops, and historic buildings with plaques announcing that George Washington once drank some cider on this exact location. Most of the old houses, churches and pubs were built in the 1770s, which is one of the reasons it’s the third oldest historic district in the country.

But, our Old Town is a pimply preteen compared to Dubrovnik’s Old Town.

Dubrovnik's Stradun Street in Old Town
Old Town’s Stradun Street

Dubrovnik was founded in the 7th century by a group of refugees from Epidaurum. I don’t even know where Epidaurum is or was. I think it’s part of Greece or Rome or something, but I couldn’t say for sure. Let’s just say, shit is that old.

I had read a history of Croatia, including the sly way that the rich merchants in Dubrovnik were able to play conquerors off each other and avoid being occupied themselves. Dubrovnik stayed an independent city-state until the French came along in the early 1800s.

Funny wall decoration in Old Town, Dubrovnik
Funny wall decoration in Old Town

Despite my considerable, newly-acquired Croatian expertise, we decided to continue our custom of hiring a tour guide for the day to show us around the city. After searching around on the Interwebs a bit, I found a great new website called ToursByLocals.com. The idea is pretty self-explanatory: You click on “Find a Tour” and the website gives you a whole list of local tour guides along with their qualifications, photos, expertise, prices, and recent reviews. It was totally like Match.com for tour guides.

We picked Almira as our tour guide, asked if we could have an earlier start time, and ToursByLocals handled the rest. Almira emailed us within 48 hours of our request and we were confirmed. We’ll definitely be using them again.

Our Dubrovnik guide, Almira
You can see Almira. That’s her hat on the bottom left.

The morning of our tour, we walked the 30 minutes from our hotel to Pile Gate entrance to the Old Town. Almira was right on time and very friendly. Armed with water and sun hats, we started our walking tour right outside the gate in a public square where executions took place during World War I (Italians executing Croats).

Old Town, Dubrovnik, Croatia
“Your execution super spot since 1308”

Almira explained to us how the Epi-Greek/Roman people established their settlement on the island and named it Laus, while just across the way at the bottom of Srd Mountain, the Slavs had their own little settlement called dubrova which meant oak forest. When the channel that separated these two settlements was filled in the 12th century they were united. The main street through the Old Town is called Stradun but in Croatian, it’s known as Paca, which derives from the word for “dirt,” signifying the dirt road that was filled in to connect the two settlements.

Stradun in Old Town, Dubrovnik, Croatia
Another view of the Stradun

Right inside Pile Gate, Almira showed us a map that shows you where the Old Town was damaged during what Almira and other Croats call the Homeland War, the Croatian War for Independence from Yugoslavia and an emboldened Serbia. We sat silently perusing the map while behind us vendors sold ice cream and school children ran around trying to give each other the Croatian version of cooties.

The primary evidence of the war can be seen in the rooftops. All the roofs in Old Town—which you can clearly see from the top of the city’s medieval wall walk–are made of distinctive orange terra cotta tiles. More than 70% of Croatia’s red roof tiles were destroyed during the Balkan Wars, so everywhere you look, there are new tiles interspersed with old tiles. There was quite the collection and conservation effort after the war, with nations around the world donating replacement tiles made in Toulouse, France.

View of roofs in Dubrovnik, Croatia

It was quite sad to see beautiful old medieval wars pocked with shrapnel, but it’s nothing compared to the damage seen by other cities in Croatia. In fact, it was the attacks on Dubrovnik, a much-beloved UNESCO-protected Heritage Site that finally galvanized the international community to say, “whoa, whoa, whoa. That’s enough of that. It’s all well and good to annihilate some podunk little village in the middle of nowhere, but let’s not go after a cultural and artistic center.”

Red roof tiles in Dubrovnik, Croatia
What’s that? More red-tiled roofs? No problem.

After our tour, XFE and I went to the War Photo Limited museum, a two-story museum owned and operated by a photographer who had covered the Homeland War. It was very well done and a gut wrenching experience. It’s difficult to see contemporaries–people wearing similar clothes to you, using common  everyday brands that you use—and seeing them in the midst of war right in their own streets. Instead of seeing photos of brave soldiers, you saw photographs of people just trying to walk down their street and getting hit by sniper fire.

Streets of Old Town, Dubrovnik, Croatia

When we walked out of the cool, dark museum and out into the sunny narrow streets of the Old Town, I had to blink away what I’d just seen. We walked quietly through the beautiful narrow streets, our sandals skimming the slippery, worn down stones that made up the streets. We stumbled across church after church, many of them featuring statues of Dubrovnik’s patron saint, St. Blaise. There are, according to Almira, 27 St. Blaise statues throughout the tiny city, including three seated figures and one in profile.

St. Blaise Church, Dubrovnik
I can’t spot it, but I’m sure there’s a St. Blaise statue somewhere in there.

We walked past St. Nicholas church. Good old Saint Nick was the patron saint of fisherman, so of course he has a church in this port city. What I didn’t know is that St. Nicholas is often pictured with three gold orbs, which were a dowry he gifted to three poor sisters. He threw the first two orbs through their window, but he threw the third down the chimney, which is why he’s associated with chimneys.

We also went past a tiny window with a sort of Lazy Susan swivel that was used by noble ladies to drop off their unwanted babies in the dead of night. Apparently, Dubrovnik is also home to the oldest orphanage, which was established in the Old Town in the 1400s. In another romantic touch, according to Almira, the babies would be given a half coin piece and the mother would keep the other half. That would allow the disgraced noble woman to come back and retrieve her child someday, if her circumstances had somehow changed.

By now, we’d worked up a good appetite and were ready for a mid-day glass of white wine, so we headed to one of Almira’s recommendations for lunch, Kobun, which lies at the top of some stairs that are very similar to the Spanish Steps in Rome. After a leisurely lunch of mussels for me and monkfish for XFE, we walked past some stalls selling jewelry, including a type of necklace called a Dubrovnik button, also called Konavoske Puce. It’s like an open filigree design that’s used in necklaces and earrings. I picked one with a bit of coral, which is also very popular in this area.

Croatian mussels

It was a very pleasant and illuminating day. In the battle of the Old Towns, I’d have to give Dubrovnik a slight edge over Old Town, Alexandria. But just barely. After all, we’ve got George Washington plaques all over the place to tell us how important everything is.

Dubrovnik's farmer's market
Dubrovnik’s farmer’s market, which had some amazing candied almonds, lemon and orange peels.

Take a Bow, Bilbao

Bilbao. The name itself fills the mouth. I’ll admit, at first, I kept messing it up. Pronouncing it like the last name of a certain famous movie boxer. I could not quite get my tongue around it. For the record, it’s Bihl. Bow. As in, take a bow.

And indeed, the resilient Spanish city by the bay should take a bow.

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Bilbao has rebuilt itself several times, usually after being wiped out by a war. Surrounded by iron ore and located on the Biscay Bay, the city focused on its industrial growth, particularly exporting iron to Great Britain, and shipbuilding.

Several factors in the 1980s, including labor disputes and terrorism from Basque separatist group ETA, caused the city to switch to a more services-focused path of economic growth. It’s now home to major companies, particularly in the banking sector. And the whole city has been undergoing an urban renewal, kicked off by the opening of the Frank Gehry-designed Bilbao Guggenheim Museum in 1997.

(Interesting side note: earlier this week, ETA announced that they are ready to disband after more than 45 years of fighting for Basque independence. I’m pretty sure our visit had something to do with that).

Bilbao was the first stop on our Spanish vacation and was a good introduction to the Basque region. We were attracted to the city by the fact that 1) there was an international airport nearby, so it was easy for both of us travelling from different directions to get to; 2) the Guggenheim Museum; 3) it was off the beaten path. But what really clinched the deal was the fact that there was a soccer game at the same time we were planning to be there.

The airport: XFE was already in the south of Spain for work, and I was flying over to meet him. The Bilbao airport itself is pretty lackluster and a bit depressing. It was small, particularly for an international airport serving 3.9 million customers, and it didn’t have any shops or restaurants. It was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who also designed one of the wineries we went to later in the week. Overall, it was very modern, but in a cold, concrete-gray kind of way.

But, it was easy to get in and out of, so that’s a bonus.

The Guggenheim: We figured going to northern Spain in November was a risk, weather-wise. We expected cold, rainy and gloomy, so we thought it would make a perfect excuse to spend a day in a museum. It was indeed chilly and drizzly the day we went to the Guggenheim, but the inside was comfortable, and because it was November, blessedly free of masses of tourists (the Guggenheim had 4 million visitors in its first three years). If anything, the gray skies made a fantastic contrasting backdrop to the gold, undulating exterior made of sandstone, titanium and glass.

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The museum is pretty massive with a total of 256,000 square feet, but it doesn’t feel that big. It was well laid out and focused on modern art. A couple of our favorites were the Jenny Holzer installation piece of large LED columns with phrases in English and Basque, and a current exhibit of works by Austrian painter Egon Schiele.

But the real star of the show is the building. It is breathtaking. We stayed at the Hotel Miro, which is spitting distance from the museum and had a waterfront room with views of the museum so we could see it day and night. It never got old.

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I’ve heard it described many ways — like a giant ship in a nod to Bilbao’s maritime past, like a giant fish with scales made up of titanium, like a flowing river reflecting back into the River Nervion it hovers over. It was all of that and more. It was one of those buildings that somehow stirs an emotion in you.

The Hotel Miro was great, both in location (city center) and amenities. It’s very modern and small, and had a great breakfast including pour-your-own mimosas. It was close to the museum, shopping and the soccer stadium.

The beaten path: Bilbao was quite a surprise to us, but a very pleasant one. Neither one of us knew anyone who had ever been there, so we had no idea what to expect. But the city is a beautiful mix of old and new buildings with wide European avenues lined with trees and lots of pedestrian-only streets and bridges. There’s a fairly new metro system, but we never needed it during our two-day stay.

Thanks to the great location of our hotel, we walked everywhere. Our first night in town, we fought off jetlag by strolling over to the Gran Via and the Plaza Eliptica for a couple of hours of shopping. All the major Spanish chains were well represented, including Zara, Mango and Maje.

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And meat. There were lots of meat shops.

On Sunday afternoon, we made like Spainards and strolled through the lovely Dona Casida Itturizar Park on our way to the soccer game. It was a gorgeous fall day, and everyone was out, pushing strollers, chasing kids and walking dogs. Usually, in that amazing way that European women have, all three at the same time and looking stylish while doing it.

We didn’t really make any dinner plans, but more often than not found ourselves eating pinxtos at the casual English-themed bar next to the hotel. There was a post-soccer/all-day-drinking feast at a donner kabob place near the hotel. At the time, I was sure it was the best restaurant in all of Spain.

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I cannot remember the name of the bar next to the hotel, but it was very friendly and had some fairly good pinxtos.

Which brings us to our final deciding factor: the soccer game.

When we first started planning our trip, we looked up the schedules for three soccer teams in Northern Spain: Sevilla, San Sebastian and Bilbao. Only one was playing on the weekend we would be there: Athletico Bilbao.

Spain, like all of Europe, is crazy about soccer. It’s like a holiday when the home team is in town, and Bilbao was no exception. They regularly reach full capacity in their 40,000 seat San Mames, known affectionately as the Cathedral. (Don’t worry, they’re building an even larger new 53,000 seat stadium right next to the old one to open sometime in 2013 – the 100th anniversary of the original stadium).

It’s an understatement to say we were very concerned about our ability to get tickets to the game.

We contacted our concierge to get tickets but were told they weren’t released until the week of the game. His recommendation was that we stand in line at the stadium to buy them the day before the game. Not a very appealing option.

Instead, we took our chances with an online ticket broker, Viagogo, and had them delivered to our hotel. It was a nerve-wracking four weeks while we waited to see if the tickets would indeed show up, but they were waiting for us when we checked in at the Hotel Miro and the seats were fantastic. Front row. They were very expensive, but worth it.

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Not surprisingly, the people of Bilbao make a whole day of the soccer game. We saw people heading towards the 4 pm game at around 10 am. We left our hotel at around 11:30 and headed to Calle Licenciado Poza for pinxtos and drinks.

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We saw this guy from our hotel window heading to the game.

The entire neighborhood was draped in red and white Athletico bunting and every bar was flying the Athletico flag. We stopped at bar after bar—everything ranging from super chic steel and chrome numbers, to older establishments with plexiglass protecting their pintxos—and the whole vibe was very festive. Since they don’t serve beer or alcohol at the stadium (a widespread European rule that I’m not particularly fond of), things get pretty tipsy on the streets beforehand.

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That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of families out and about. We particularly enjoyed one kid who sat next to us and just inhaled two bowls of the tiniest little garlicky snails we’d ever seen. They were miniscule, but this kid was pulling them out of their tiny shells like he was a machine.

We bought our traditional (and overpriced) team garb from a small shop right outside the stadium. We try to go to a soccer game every time we go to Europe and now have a pretty impressive collection of scarves (for me) and baseball hats (for XFE). I also might have accosted a group of young American students I happened to overhear on our way in as if they were our long-lost relatives. What can I say? I was carried away by the many glasses of 1 Euro tintos and the excitement of game day.

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Finally, we made our way into the Cathedral. The atmosphere inside the stadium was electric. European men, I’ve observed, are very, very demonstrative at soccer games. They cheer wildly and cry and throw their hands up in disgust and hug each other. It’s a pretty impressive display. On that particular day, the home team beat the Sevilla visitors 2-0, so it was mostly cheers.

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No cheers for the broken stadium chair, though. Those wimpy EU chairs are not made for American butts. (To be fair, this is not the first stadium chair we’ve ever broken. We leave a trail of butt destruction)

As we marched out of the stadium, carried along by the exuberant crowd into the neighborhood streets, I decided I liked Bilbao very, very much indeed. And then I went into a bar and had another glass of tinto. Somewhere there was a very non-Spanish kebab calling my name.

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