My Summer Vacation – 2020 COVID Edition

While waiting for my COVID results when I went in for what was thought to be a urinary tract infection that just turned out to be some weirdness down below accompanied by a slight fever, my wife and I needed somewhere to visit that would be safe in the social distancing realm.

What about a farm that is now a forest preserve?

Scenic view of St. James Farm Warrenville IL


But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. I suppose I should start at how a planned vacation was almost ruined before it even started.

Weirdness 2020

There is so much weirdness these days, which is fine in a weird way because that which makes life weird can also make life more inventive.

Take a summer vacation.

Any other year, for my wife and me, traveling wasn’t an issue. Neither of us are worried about flying, both love foreign travel, and this year would be the trip of a lifetime, Tokyo, Japan, for the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Then came the ‘rona,” or the “vid,” or whatever the kids are calling it these days, and travel plans went out the window.

Sure, I know there are folks right now who are convinced that things are a hoax, that COVID-19 isn’t that bad, and think that “flying with a bunch of strangers who must not have COVID because they are flying so it must be safe for me” might be out there, but my wife and I aren’t any of them.

Go ahead, call me chicken.

Anyway, as we had vacation time, and my day job wouldn’t let it roll into next year, and she really needed a break from being with the dog 24-7, we had to figure out something to do.

A week of short getaways became the plan.

The getaways almost didn’t happen.

What’s Going On Down There?

It’s the Friday before vacation, and I’m at the day gig looking forward to getting out of there. I’m not feeling bad, but things down below are feeling kind of weird. I won’t go into much detail, I believe we have all had weird feelings down there, so I’m guessing you can all understand.

I get home, take my temperature because that’s the thing to do these days when you feel any kind of anything, and all is well. Dinner comes, I’m feeling run down, a temperature check reveals ever so slight a temp around 99.5, and all I want to really do is go number one and sleep. The former completed, the latter achieved, and the next morning my temperature is down just a tad, but things still feel weird.

I end up at the immediate care to test some things, better safe than sorry, and I’m negative for anything pee related. The doctor can’t really come up with a diagnosis, but then says something like, “You did have a slight fever, want a COVID test?”

Ah, what the heck, shove the stick up my nose.

With the nose-probing complete I get my orders, something like, “Okay, now stay away from people until you get your results.”

“Crap, I’ve got plans! What do I do now? Those results better come quickly.”

So, being the good boy, Sunday was isolation day. I was following protocol, however, I was feeling tons better, and dammit, the weather for Monday looked perfect. What do we do?

Stay Away From Me!

So there it was, a perfect weather Monday, I’m feeling fine except for the utter anxiety waiting for my test results, and a decision was made: We need somewhere to go that is outside in the nice weather but away from people. We also wanted someplace we hadn’t gone before, a general theme set for the week.

Picture of St. James Farm sign.

I pondered places and remembered the large, St. James Farm sign that you can seen from the road nearby. A quick Internet search showed it had plenty of open space, a nice walking path, so it was decided that we would just go for a family walk on this, our first day of vacation.

The Milking House - St. James Farm

It turns out St. James Farm, according to the website, was a, well, farm, dating to the early settlers of the area back in the 1800’s. Eventually the McCormick family got their hands on it, yes, relatives of the reaper inventor McCormick, and set up some horse stuff. As wealthy people might also have in those days, the McCormicks had award-winning, Guernsey cows, so they also turned the land into a dairy farm.

Horse statue at St. James Farm

Eventually the horse side of things won out, more stables, competition areas, and just a lot of things horses ended up there, and eventually the whole lot got sold to the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.

Trail at St. James Farm

Enough history, I’ll just say that the place is really nice, has some great walking trails, and once all this COVID stuff is taken care of I’m looking forward to going back when the horses return. The best part? We were able to stay far away from everyone, which was nice, so I could sleep knowing I didn’t infect anyone.

Please let me get my results! Please let me get my results!

So it’s Tuesday, another beautiful weather day, and our plan pre-COVID test was to go to Wisconsin. With part of our quest this week being to visit new places while enjoying the weather as much as possible, there turns out to be a nice, botanical garden up there in the land of cheese. They also appear to have more custard per capita than the rest of the United States. Okay, that may not be true, but from my quick research, they have a lot of custard. And I like custard.

The problem? I still didn’t get my test results.

What to do?

Let’s roll the dice!

From most sources, testing results from where I had mine completed were taking a couple of days. With that I should find out, on this day, if I’m screwed for the next ten days as well as if my wife would need to get a stick up her nose. We decided to risk starting the drive, hoping and praying the results would come before we got to our destination.

We begin our drive through the not-so-winding highways of Illinois, waving “Hello” and “Goodbye” to Rockford, and headed to Madison, Wisconsin.

Then my phone rings.

I was told they would only call if the results are positive.


I was actually afraid to answer the phone so I let it go to voicemail. The notification came up, and I listened.

“Hi Andrew, this is the immediate care center. I’m calling to tell you that your COVID test was negative blah, blah blah.”

Thank God! I won’t have to spend the rest of my vacation days having to quarantine, my wife won’t have to get tested, and also, thank God there wouldn’t have to be that discussion, “Umm, boss, yea, I got the COVID. You might want to have the office people tested. Have a nice day.”

Nope, the rest of the week was clear for fun!

Custard and Gardens and Custard and Custard

Michael's Frozen Custard - Madison WI

Medically cleared to now be in the presence of people, at least as present as we should be nowadays, the timing was perfect as our first stop was upon us, Michael’s Frozen Custard in the lovely city of Madison. Lunch was needed and this was the first stop on the Mini-Custard Tour of Wisconsin portion of our trip.

We opted for a cheeseburger which was good, nothing super-special, but really we came for the custard. I opted for the basic sundae, and I have to say it was a nice custard, the hot fudge wasn’t too sweet or funky, and the pecans were decent. My wife had the “Michael’s Famous Turtle Sundae” which she enjoyed. Michael’s was a great start to our journey!

Walking paths at Olbrich Gardens

With full bellies it was time for nature, and in Madison a great place for nature is the Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Admission was free, which is nice, and lots of things were still in bloom. Of gardens I’ve been to they rank up there towards the top. The paths are laid out nicely, and they have this stunning Thai Pavilion and Garden area.

Thai Pavilion

Unfortunately, the Bolz Conservatory was closed due to the virus, as happens at times these days, but it was nice to stroll through nature, see lots of happy bees and butterflies, all while enjoying the sun on a perfect summer day.

Thai Pavilion picture of elephant statue.

But, there was only so much time, and we needed to get to Milwaukee so it was “Goodbye, Madison!”, and we were off to to our next destination in the custard tour, Gilles Custard.

In our research of custard in Wisconsin three names came up the most, Kopp’s, Gilles, and Leon’s. As both my wife and I were familiar with the goodness that is Kopp’s, we continued with our “something different” theme. Sadly we should have gone to Kopp’s instead of Gilles.

I really wanted to like Gilles, I mean, I really did because I just want to like all custard. Sadly I was let down.

Gilles Frozen Custard Sign

Whereas the custard was fine, the hot fudge topping was a disappointment. It wasn’t that it was too sweet nor to chocolaty, but it just had some funkiness that neither my wife nor I could put our finger on. There was that disappointment, but also the disappointment in inquiring if there was any way they could pack their famous Jameson Irish Whiskey custard (they had it in pints) in ice so it would make the trek to Illinois. The youngin’ looked at me like I was crazy, came back with one of those “I don’t really understand what you want nor want to take the time to figure it out” attitudes with his reply of, “No,” so sadly I ended up with no whiskey custard and funky hot fudge on my sundae.

Luckily, though, Leon’s was a short drive from Gilles, and it was there that both of us finally felt we hit the custard jackpot.

Leon's Custard Building

The location still looks to be straight out of the 1950’s when it was remodeled to what it is today. It comes complete with staff wearing the cool, ice cream shop hats, and people all around who just looked so happy to be getting something tasty.

I have to say that the custard was creamy, the pecans were the best of the three, and the hot fudge was damn near perfect.

Yup, our custard dreams had finally come true on this day, but there was still something decadent to find, and that would lead us to Kenosha.

Pop Tart?

Our vacation stop in Kenosha was before the craziness arrived that put the town on the national stage. Even before all the hubbub, there would generally be a “Why would you go to Kenosha, anyway?” Well, let me tell you about a place called “Elsie Mae’s Canning and Pies.”

My introduction to these wonderful pies came from our local farmer’s market where Elsie Mae’s sets up a booth selling their little pies. They are cute, the perfect size for one or two people, and of the nearly dozen flavors we have tried to date, none of them has let us down. They aren’t too sweet, the crust is perfect, and even for the pickiest of pie fans, well, they probably have a flavor for you.

And don’t get me started on their lemonade mixes (may I recommend the Blueberry Lemonade with gin?).

And so, with Kenosha falling between Milwaukee and home, we decided to stop at the Elsie Mae mother-ship!

In my head I envisioned wall-to-wall pies, but alas, it was just a nice storefront selling pies, their wonderful jams, lemonade mixes, and then I saw them – pop-tarts.

Elsie Mae's toaster pastry

Fine, they aren’t really “pop-tarts” as some giant conglomerate has the trademark on that term, but there they were, a tray of toaster pastries, and fine, you probably don’t want to put them in a toaster with the icing on top, but as my eyes popped out of my head, the pastry had to be had.

And the perfect time for that pastry? In the morning, with my caffeine of course!

And so our Tuesday carried us into our Wednesday of vacation with the wonderfulness of an Elsie Mae toaster pastry that you can’t put in your toaster in our preparation for….

What is This Silver Disc?

As we set up our vacation plans we had discussed visiting the Amish. One choice was a long drive to southern Illinois, but the other seemed shorter thanks to my remembrance of seeing signs for Amish Acres in Indiana on many a drive to and from Ohio.

Some quick investigating found that Amish Acres is technically no longer, instead re-named The Barns of Nappanee, which seemed interesting, but what the heck is “The Heritage Trail?”

Picture of Elkhart Visitor Center

It turns out Indiana really knows how to use the Amish area of Indiana to its fullest, complete with a “vehicle” tour of the entire area. Yes, you can stop at the Elkhart County Visitor Center and get, for free, a compact disc or USB stick of a tour of Elkhart County all in the comfort of your own vehicle. While you can stream the tour if you so desire, go ahead and stop at the Visitor Center, say, “Hello,” and wonder how Elkhart can have such a fancy visitor center.

Picture of The Heritage Trail CD

Compact disc inserted, even my wife was surprised her car had a CD player, and we began our tour starting in Elkhart, Indiana. Through the downtown and by the river (who knew Elkhart had an awesome riverfront?), we made our way through the streets while listening to the history of how Elkhart came to be, as well as how, up ahead, there would be a town called Bonneyville Mills.

Picture of Bonnyville Mill
Picture of the grinding wheel.

Now, Bonneyville Mills ain’t got that much, but what they do have is a mill. This isn’t just an old mill, this is an actual working, old mill. I know it sounds silly in this day and age of machinery and corporate food, but should you tour The Heritage Trail go ahead and hit up the mill, say, “Hello” to the folks in there, because, well, they are actually working the mill. Yup, they grind their own products for a variety of flours, available for purchase, and you can look at it and wonder, “How the heck did they get that heavy stone in there?”

The dork in me found this stop fascinating!

Welcome to Tourist Heaven

As the tour of The Heritage Trail continued we started to see more Amish folks, complete with horses and buggies, on our way to Das Dutchman Essenhaus in the town of Middlebury. If there is anything that screams “Tourist Heaven” on this trip, it is Essenhaus. Yup, you can stop for some food, they have more knickknacks and “Amish” things than you can ever imagine, and in the non-COVID era I’m guessing there would be tour bus after tour bus parked in the lot, or at least just a lot more people crammed in there.

Picture of Amish horse and buggy.

A late lunch eaten, it was time for a short drive to Tourist Heaven Part II on The Heritage Trail, the town of Shipshewana. Yup, here you have more dining, an Amish furniture store, a mall kind of place, and what supposedly is the largest flea market in the Midwest. Sadly, on this day, there was no flea market, and also sadly was we forgot about the time change from Chicago time to Indiana time when we got a late start in the morning.

Yup, it turns out that hour difference is huge because at 5PM everything in the Amish-land of Elkhart shuts down, and as we checked, so was everything else we wanted to see on the rest of the tour.

So there we were, 4PM home time, 5PM Amish shut-down time, and we realized our Heritage Trail tour was going to be cut short because why head to Goshen and Nappanee when everything would be closed?

It was time to head back to the modern world.

Drive Just a Little Longer

Picture of South Haven Lighthouse

I learned this lesson back in college – To avoid the places that are packed with Chicagoan’s when getting out of Chicago, drive a little further down the road when looping around the bottom of Lake Michigan. For example, there are the Indiana Dunes, a mere hop, skip and a jump from Chicago, but do yourself a favor and drive the extra 40 minutes to Warren Dunes for a few less people and, in my opinion, a nicer beach.

For our Friday of vacation we wanted beach as well as a beach town. What to do? Sure, there was St. Joseph, but everything we read said St. Joe was generally crowded.

South Haven Beach

(Those of you paying attention might be wondering about Thursday. Thursday was social distancing family day, and while enjoyable, I’m guessing most of you don’t want to read about my mom-in-law sneaking out of the conversation to cook a quick meal so we would all stay for dinner. But, I digress, back to Michigan.)

Hey, look, what about South Haven? It’s half-an-hour up the road from St. Joe, let’s try there! Sure enough, that half hour brought a nice, little beach town, complete with, well, a beach, and a lighthouse, and beer.

South Haven Pier
Seagull at South Haven Beach

This time we remembered there would be a time change, got a fairly early start, drove around the bottom of Lake Michigan, up the western shore of Michigan, and made it to South Haven. We walked out to the end of the pier and admired the lighthouse, we soaked up some rays on a large swath of beach, and I can happily report that on this day everyone seemed to be doing their part to social distance, well, at least the humans. The seagulls, apparently, have not gotten the memo about social distancing nor wearing a mask.

Lunch at Taste in South Haven

I can only say so much about a beach, I mean, it was a nice beach, but it was time for grub. We made our way to a restaurant called Taste where we were delighted to find a place serving “small plate” fare. Our sampling included Crispy Artichokes, the Korean Chicken BBQ, and a wonderful mac and cheese. I must say this is a wonderful restaurant, the service was great, and they lived up to their name.

Bad Donut, Good Beer

If you have read some of my other writings you may know one thing about me, namely, that I like donuts. Okay, “like” is the wrong word, I love donuts to the point that I will finish just about any donut even if I don’t like the flavor, but sadly South Haven is the first place that I didn’t finish a donut.

Across and down the street from Taste was a bakery. I’m a sucker for bakeries, and an earlier, quick stop to Bunde’s Bakery Cafe proved to be a gem of a little shop. With that experience I was excited about stopping into the Golden Brown Bakery. Having just eaten lunch you would think there wasn’t much room for donuts, but, well, as I’ve said, I love donuts, and my go-to is the basic, glazed donut.

Donut in hand, then in my mouth, and suddenly I was sad. This was it, a bad donut. I will give them the benefit of the doubt that maybe they were having a bad day, but the donut seemed old (it wasn’t that late in the day for donuts to taste old, yet), the glaze wasn’t tasty, and dammit, I threw out half a donut. Yes, I gave it a few bites, kept trying, kept hoping, then gave up and said, “Honey, I need to wash my mouth out with something. The brewery is right over there.”

Harbor Light Brewing Company

Luckily South Haven has a batch of breweries to choose from so the first stop was Harbor Light. I must say they have a plethora of beers, in all makes and tastes, and their strong scotch ale, Moral Flexibility, proved to be a decent choice to get the taste of the bad donut out of my mouth. Harbor Light is strictly beer but you can order food, if you desire, from local restaurants, and they’ll bring it to you at the brewery.

With time winding down there was more beer to find so a short walk was taken to South Haven Brewpub where, since they do serve food, you are more likely to see a few families hanging out. It’s a little cramped, especially for these days of the virus, but they were doing a great job cleaning between customers, and the beer was good.

Three Blondes Brewing

Why stop at two when you can go for three? Yup, happily my wife was driving so a hop, skip, and a drive took us to what ended being my favorite beer place of the bunch, Three Blondes Brewing.

Three Blondes was started by three sisters and is a warehousy looking location. On this day they had a smaller selection of beer and a fairly extensive food menu. This was fine for me because, as I’m a barrel-aged junkie, all I was really looking forward to round out my afternoon of beer was The BBA Team, a wonderful barleywine. We opted for some food, choosing the Margherita Pub Pizza, which proved to be a good choice, and with my beer taste buds now satisfied it was time for me to take a nap and trust my wonderful wife to get us home.

A Day That Felt Like a Saturday, On a Saturday

The weird thing about this vacation was that it constantly felt like a Saturday. Every evening felt like the Friday evening before a Saturday, you know the evening, when you sort of plot out what you might do over the weekend, then you have your Saturday adventure, then you repeat planning for the next day which ended up seeming like a Saturday.

Picture of Grill Setup

Yup, you didn’t have a departure and a return date a week or so later. Nope, it had been five days of departures and with the same five days of returns, so it was nice to have an actual Saturday even if all it meant was that the end vacation week was winding down and the new “normal” would begin again in a few days.

But, what to do?

What to do was relax all day and cook the thickest steak I’ve ever attempted.

Yes, along with donuts I love steak, and when the opportunity arose for me to pick a steak that the butcher was going to cut, I opened my fingers wide and said, “This thick!”

End of Vacation Dinner

My wife looked at me like I was nuts, but I was giddy like a schoolboy!

Nice weather was plentiful, the grill performed wonderfully, and a long week was concluded with a wonderful steak, potatoes with pesto, and a barrel-aged beer.

Let Weird Rule

A selfie with a horse statue.

Look, times are weird. Would I have preferred seeing the USA women’s soccer team win the gold medal during the summer Olympics? You bet, but I suppose that wasn’t meant to be. What was meant to be was the weird, the weirdness of wondering if I had the “Vid,” the weirdness of thinking it might be fun to go horse-back riding, the weirdness of wondering how much custard I could actually eat, the weirdness of being fascinated by an old, working mill, and the weirdness of every day of the week feeling like a Saturday.

These days you’ve got make the best of any situation you might find yourself in, even when it comes to figuring out things to do on vacation. I think we did a weird, good job, although I do think I could have eaten a lot more custard. Maybe next vacation!

Eating Our Way Through Spain

Grab a Sangria!
First Sangria

Andy Note: This is a long story. Our vacation was ten days, and it might take that long for you to read this novella. Feel free to jump around, just look at the pictures, or go ahead and grab a sangria or three, a plate of “Jamón ibérico,” that’s Iberican ham to you English reading folks, and follow our journey of eating our way through Spain, and not running with bulls.

Hola! Where Are the Zombies!

Quick Jumps to…
San Sebastian
Bodega Donostiarra
Running of the Bulls
Park Guell, a.k.a. Whoville
I Had What Phil Had
La Sagrada Familia
La Barra de Carles Abellan
Montjuic Castle
Montserrat Monestary
BarCeloneta Sangria Bar
Complete Photo Album
Elephant Cloud in the Sky
Elephant Cloud from the Plane

It’s funny how a song, a taste, or a smell can bring back a memory, and on a recent excursion to Spain a smell, well, that was a memory I had never thought I would experience again. It occurred in Pamplona, for the running of the bulls, but we’ll get to that part of the story later.

Hello, Bilbao!

We left our humble abode in Chicago, had a quick layover in Munich, Germany, took a short flight to Bilbao, Spain, and all I could think as we were making our way through Bilbao airport was that this place would be perfect for some kind of zombie apocalypse movie. One of the window panes looked like a cart had rammed into it, you had to go to the special holding area if you were an international passenger, and then it was to the catacombs to secure your rental car.

Rental car secure, no zombies, it was on to San Sebastián!

Just Like the Amazing Race, but With Technology!

Here’s a helpful hint when it comes to travel in Spain: Get a car with navigation and ignore Google Maps.

In preparation for our travels I recommended to my wife that she print out directions. She obliged, and there we were, in our rental car, in a land of a different language, armed with written directions. I was supposed to navigate, I looked at the printed word, and said, “Let’s see if this car navigation works.”

To San Sebastian We Go

We got the directions plugged in, the map looked similar, and on to San Sebastián we went. Happily the nice lady in the dashboard knew exactly where she was going. She was able to do simple things like direct us to stay on the main road instead of exiting the highway, going through the exit roundabout, and then re-entering the same main road. Yes, somehow Google decided we should exit at every exit, go around in a circle, and get back on the highway.

My wife, bless her soul, was able to pay attention to the driving while my head was on a swivel looking at the scenery, shirking my navigation duties at times, and happily she safely got us to our hotel in San Sebastián, the Hotel Arrizul Congress. It was a quaint place, we were early, so they stored our luggage and directed us to the parking garage where, at the third sub-basement, I felt safe if the zombie apocalypse that would begin in Bilbao ever made it to San Sebastian.

Time to Explore!

Here’s another helpful hint when it comes to travel in Spain: Ask the hotel staff where to go.

We had done some prep work for our travels, the normal Trip Advisor and Rick Steves stuff, but nothing turned out more helpful than asking the people who live there where you should end up. When we asked as the front desk of the hotel what we should head off to see, the nice lady pulled out a map and pointed out the shopping area, the “Old Town” area, and then nicely circled the “this is where the locals eat” area, with a grin hinting, “You should go here.”

Tapas Time

And so we did. First stop was Ramuntxo Berri, a little restaurant where our first Sangria of the trip was consumed and a nice round of tapas. As we still had a few hours before our room would be ready we found a gelato shop and then…

Would You Look at That, and Those!

Zurriola Beach - San Sebastian, Spain
Zurriola Beach – San Sebastian, Spain

This only being my second trip to Europe, and my first near a beach area, the quick recollection that Europeans aren’t nearly hung up on nudity as Americans are took hold. Yup, as I saw the first one it occurred to me that my little feller hasn’t seen the sun since I ran out of the house, naked, when I was about five years old. There was that first one, then another, and another. Alrighty then, guess I should get used to seeing “that” at the beach. And then there were “those,” as yes, sunning one’s self with whatever amount, or lack of clothing you desire, is perfectly acceptable.

Time For a Tour

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like the beach was just full of naked folks, but for me, the generic American, it was a little shocking. It also made me wonder why we are so hung up on nakedness. No one there seemed to care, so why should I?

Beach time over we found this little “train” that would take us around
San Sebastián, got the generic guided tour of the city, and finally found ourselves back at the hotel for check in.

When in San Sebastian… Pinxtos!

Settled in and unpacked, it was time for the tradition of San Sebastián, pintxos. Pintxos are kind of like appetizers just sitting there on a bar for you to partake in. Generally they are smaller than an order of tapas, kind of a “one bite” kind of thing.

This time we ignored the suggestion of our hotel staff and made it over to Old Town, I mean, we did need to see more than just where the locals ate, and Old Town is a neat area of San Sebastián.

Who Wants Some Pintxos! - Gandarias - San Sebastien
Who Wants Some Pintxos!

There was one recommendation that came up consistently for pintxos, Gandarias. We made our way across the river, got ourselves in the door, and proceeded to stand there like first-time tourists, not really knowing what to do, nor how we were supposed to order these things.

“We’re new. What do we do here with the pintxos?” The bartender looked at us like we were the dumbest people on earth. “I give you plate. You put pintxos on plate. You give me plate. I tell you how much. You pay. I give you plate back.”

Pintxos Time at Gandaria's - San Sebastian
Pintxos Time!

So we did. We put pintxos on our plate. We gave the bartender our plates (and ordered some Sangria), he told us how much, we paid, and he gave us our plates back along with our drinks.

Gandarias’ pintxos were pretty darn tasty I must say, but we didn’t want to fill up in one place so we decided to try a different method to find good pintxos around Old Town – We wandered around, looked inside places, and asked for a plate, put some on a plate, handed the plate to the bartender, to gave us a price, we paid, and he gave us our plate back.

This was mostly a mistake.

Sunset in San Sebastian
Sunset in San Sebastian

While Gandarias was a great pintxos spot, we should have checked out more online reviews before checking out other places. Yea, we hit a couple of other bars, both came up way short of Gandarias in the pintxos department, so we decided more of a dinner was in order. Where to go? Back to the local’s area, and this time Bodega Donostiarra.

Bodega Donostiarra

Squeezing our way into Bodega Donostiarra, the place was packed. This was a good sign.

After a short wait a table opened up, we perused the menu with our Google Translate app (Yea, we were the dummies who didn’t ask for the English menu), and settled on Merluza a la brasa, also known as grilled hake, as well as Tortilla recién hecha de patata, also known as the potato omelet. Oh yea, don’t forget dessert, the Copa Bodega, the Bodega special dessert (foam custard with biscuits and cream ice cream).

While we didn’t make it to any of the three star Michelin restaurants in San Sebastián, nor any of the one star Michelin restaurants for that matter, damn, Bodega Donostiarra served some tasty fare! No wacky molecular gastronomy, and don’t get me wrong I am a lover of molecular gastronomy, but this was just a completely satisfying meal, with frantic service, leaving one with a full-bellied walk home.

We’re Doing It Wrong

It was too short a stay in San Sebastián, only about 24 hours allotted on this leg, but we needed some sustenance prior to our drive to Pamplona. Where to go? Let’s not risk it, let’s get back to Bodega Donostiarra.

American Portions

Taking some table spots outside we perused the English menu this time, and like most Americans I suppose, ordered way too much food. There was a giant plate of ham as well as Huevos a la brasa (pisto, patata, jamón, chorizo y huevos), that’s grilled eggs with ratatouille, potatoes, ham and chorizo.

Then we looked around.

With the place being mostly locals, yup, most everyone else there had a small plate of ham, maybe some cheese, and a glass of wine. Many of them were in groups, chit-chatting away instead of stuffing their faces, and even the older lady, who sat by herself, only had a little plate of ham, a piece of bread, and a glass of wine.

The other thing? They all looked healthy.

Good Shepherd of San Sebastián Cathedral
He Didn’t Look Healthy – Good Shepherd of San Sebastián Cathedral

I looked at my wife, as I sat there with an over-stuffed belly and food left on the plate, and whispered to her, “We’re doing it wrong. Look at all of them. They have tiny portions, a glass of wine, and seem to be enjoying life. Here I am, wasting food, and hoping my belt makes it through this trip.”

Yea, I’m thinking for lunch I should take a little bottle of wine with some ham and cheese. I’m not sure if the company would go for that, but you know what, I would probably be happier, chit-chattier, and just enjoy the rest of my day a lot better.

Oh well, I took my belly full of food, my wife and it was time for Pamplona!

Some Recon and Eating in an Empty Restaurant

Do You Know the Way to Pamplona?

It would have been nice to stay another day or two in San Sebastián, but we had some driving to do in order to get to our next stop, Pamplona.

Be Careful Out There!

Once again the nice lady in the dashboard was dead-on with the directions, and the nice lady sitting next to me did a great job negotiating the “at the roundabout take the second right,” “at the roundabout take the second right,” “at the roundabout take the second right.” Yes, roundabout after roundabout after roundabout eventually led us to our hotel. We got settled, changed into our white outfits with red bandana, and it was time to scope out where our balcony for the running of the bulls was so that the next morning we wouldn’t be late.

Someone Is Not Dressed Appropriately

Our hotel was about a 25 minute walk to the old part of town where the bulls run and, as we walked, the guide books weren’t lying, everyone was dressed in white with red bandanas.

I mean darn near everyone.

Sangria Party in Pamplona!
Sangria Party in Pamplona!

Getting closer to town the crowds grew larger, and then, suddenly, it was just a sea of people, in appropriate attire, although many an outfit had now turned pink from being drenched in Sangria from the partying going on.

Too Much Partying

The amount of this partying was completely insane, or so I thought, and all I could really think was “Holy shit! This is crazy!” I also thought that next time I need to show up sans camera gear and just be there completely for the fun!

We strolled the streets through seas of people, and found our balcony spot secure in the path we would take the next morning. There were tents of souvenirs, an area where you could sample food from the across all of Spain, and people of every age enjoying themselves.

Dudes in Pamplona Calling me, "Soso."
They were calling me “Soso.” I think it means “Awesome.”

We walked around much of Pamplona eventually finding ourselves back at our hotel, and discovered a nice restaurant right across the street that was just opening. We had the place to ourselves for about half an hour until the local folks began to arrive for dinner.

American Dinner Time in Spain
American Dinner Time in Spain

All of the walking was tiring, but it did allow us to witness that the San Fermin festival wasn’t just going on in the old part of town. All across the city there were little parties happening in the myriad of parks along the way. It was nice seeing everyone just enjoying themselves, partying it up, but nothing would prepare me for the sights and smells of what was to come the next day.

A Smell Takes Me Back

The Party is Over in Pamplona. For Now.
The Party is Over in Pamplona. For Now.

Getting up the next day at a crazy hour, we had to be at the door to our balcony around 6:30AM, they were going to let us in at 7AM, and the bull running was at 8AM. As we strolled back into town the revelers who were partying the night before, and who didn’t care about the running of the bulls, were stumbling and bumbling their way back to their sleeping accommodations.

Time to Clean Up

It was like the walking dead. I remember that style of walk, and I was about the age of the people we walked past on the street when I had partaken in that same walk. Part of me wished I was that age again.

But then “it” arrived. That “smell.”

Hosing Down the Pamplona Streets
Hosing Down the Pamplona Streets

The memory of the aftermath of many a fraternity party from my younger days permeated the air as the smell of liquor, sweat, vomit, and who knows what other bodily functions began to penetrate my nostrils. If the aroma didn’t bring back such great memories it probably would be enough to make me want to vomit at times, but there I was, smiling, knowing the level of partying that must have been going on the night before.

It was awesome.

Our travel to the balcony area let us meet a few other couples who were there to see the running of the bulls. They were drawn to us by our certainty of where we were going as well as our conversing in English. All were amazed at the level of drunkenness, smell, and filth.

Again, to me, it was awesome!

What level of drunkenness you may ask? The easiest answer is the recollection of a dude with a half-full bottle of Jack Daniels. Yes, Jack in Spain. Wandering around he was a pretty happy dude, but then he saw it, in a pile of garbage destined for the trucks – A half-full bottle of Coca-Cola. My man dug right into the garbage pile, pulled out the bottle of Coke, and an ecstatic look of glee filled his face as he now had mixer.

As much fun as he was having, that was a level I had never seen.

Street Sweeping Pamplona
Street Sweeping in Pamplona

Drunk folks were everywhere, and the cleanup of the streets prior to the running of the bulls is fairly crazy, and one must be on your toes, sometimes literally. It stars with dudes with brooms pushing the garbage into piles, then the collecting of said garbage into large containers, then it was pass number one of the street sweeper.

Enter the water truck with a dude holding what might as well have been a fire hose, hosing down the streets. He didn’t care the direction he was spraying, and if you were in the way you would be a mess of street filth and water. While he was finishing up here came the street sweepers again, more hosing down, more street sweepers, and repeat until the streets were clean.

Five Seconds of Summer. Okay, Maybe Eleven Seconds

Running of the Bulls Emergency Preparations
Running of the Bulls Emergency Preparations

Dodging drunks, street sweepers, and gross water spray, it was finally time to get to our balcony, just off a family’s living room, and secure some watching. A nice little spread of breakfast sweets, hot chocolate, coffee, etc., was there for our bellies, and people jockeyed for position.

John is Ready to Run!

One of the folks in the group, Marianne, spotted her husband, John, who, I suppose, decided mere weeks earlier that he was in the best shape of his life, or he just decided he would run, and she was slightly nervous. A band went by, the ambulances were in position, the medics had a pow wow, the police did one final clearing of the streets so the dude with the leaf blower could dry off the street, and finally the runners were allowed back to take their positions in the street below.

One Man Asking For Trouble - The Running of the Bulls
One Man Asking For Trouble – The Running of the Bulls

8:00 AM came, the rocket signified the bulls were set free to run, and it was time to peer down the street.

Bearing Down - Running of the Bulls
Bearing Down – Running of the Bulls

Finally the crowd erupted, the bulls appeared, I was snapping pictures all along, and just like that the bulls came, the bulls were below, and the bulls were gone.

Into Dead Man's Curve - Running of the Bulls
Into Dead Man’s Curve – Running of the Bulls

Eleven seconds. Yup, from my first picture of the bulls, to them rounding dead-man’s curve, it took eleven seconds.

A lone steer came through, after the main bulls vacated, and it was time to assess the carnage. Across the street two people were being attended to. One dude looked to have a scrape on his forehead while another looked to have busted up the back of his head. Me, I started flipping through my pictures, and was almost horrified.

In Harms Way - Running of the Bulls
In Harms Way – Running of the Bulls

In the shot lie a person, with red all around their head, as the bulls ran right past. “Oh my God, it looks like their brains are all over the street!” I looked closer, still slightly horrified, but then looked at some of the other photos in the series.

Just Missed - Running of the Bulls
Just Missed – Running of the Bulls

Turns out said person was a female, with dark red hair. Luckily a follow-up picture showed her on her side, with hair flying all around. Phew!

The Best Damn Churros, Period.

Get Thee to the Churreria!

An experience of a lifetime over for us, the bulls were finishing their journey, and it was time to be off to find some churros. Yes, maybe that sounds weird, but rumored to be in Pamplona is the best churro place in the world, Churreria The Mañueta

Down a street there was already a line for a place with two subtle signs, “Churreria” and “Roscas Especiales.” Yup, that’s all you get when trying to find the churro shop.

Old School Churro Making - Churreria The Mañueta
Old School Churro Making – Churreria The Mañueta

We got there rather quickly, thank God, because the line isn’t the fastest, and it grew quickly. The anticipation swelled as we got closer, and there it was, this place with a slightly updated purchasing area, but if you peer into the kitchen area, damn, it looks like it is back from the 1800’s, complete with fire stocked oil pots. About the only thing that looked modern in the kitchen area was the churro dough extruder that they used to put the dough in the oil.

We stood in line, were offered a sample from Mr. Mustache, and took our bag of goodness out of the stench of old town. One should not eat these churros around the smell of booze and pee. Finding a spot with clean air, I will happily say, right now, we devoured the best, damn, churros in the world.

They were completely worth the wait.

All Those Drives Back Home Were For a Reason. Who Knew?

Rock & Toll to Barcelona

With bellies full of churros it was time for a drive that reminded me of years ago when I had to drive from Chicago, Illinois, to Lorain, Ohio, to visit my folks. Yup, it was time to depart Pamplona and head for Barcelona!

The Village of Pueyo, From the Highway
The Village of Pueyo, From the Highway

The drive time would be about 5 hours, the same as my drive home used to be, and there were toll booths, yes toll booths, complete with tickets you secure at the first booth, and utilize at the later booth. There were flatlands, which reminded me of the farmland of Indiana, and at times there were rolling hills, actually quite scenic, that had me recollect the change in elevations that occurred as one traveled across Ohio to the East. I saw stone material companies in Spain, and while sure, they were destroying mountains, Illinois had the quarry companies where you can see giant holes in the ground, created by man. About the only differences were some actual mountain-looking areas in Spain, and deserted towns that look like remnants from the middle ages.

Smiley Shed in Toledo, Ohio
Pay Your Way to Zaragoza

My wife found it boring, but it took me back and the only thing missing in Spain was a shed with a smiley face on it to brighten my day!

We Need Some Grub!

First Tapas at Cervesería Catalana
First Tapas at Cervesería Catalana

Barcelona was the final stop on our tour of Spain as my wife had some work to do, but we got there early enough to have some fun! I successfully navigated the streets of Barcelona, thank God it was a Sunday, and we returned our rental car both with the satisfaction of having driven in a foreign land.

We made our way to our lodging spot, and while now secure in our little bed and breakfast, it occurred to us that all we really had so far, this day, were some pastries at breakfast, the world’s best churros, and some trail mix and dried apples. What we needed was a good meal and some gelato.

Second Tapas at Cervesería Catalana
Second Tapas at Cervesería Catalana

As luck would have it we were able to get an outside table at Cervesería Catalana who served us up a tasty mix of tapas and yummy Sangria. The bonus? On our way to the restaurant we spotted Emilia Cremeria, a gelato shop. We opted out of deserts at Catalana as we now had gelato on our minds, and Emilia satisfied our need for something cold, creamy, and tasty. It was finally time for bed!

It Rarely Rains in Barcelona

It Rarely Rains at ⁨Park Güell⁩
It Rarely Rains at ⁨Park Güell⁩

With one of our free days to explore Barcelona, this day was supposed to be all about Antoni Gaudí. The morning we had booked a tour at Whoville, I mean the Park Güell, planned to walk about the city for spell and get some lunch, and then head to the Sagrada Familia where the sun was supposed to be streaming through the stained glass windows.

Whoville in ⁨Park Güell⁩ from Gaudi
Whoville in ⁨Park Güell⁩

The skies were kind of dark, but every weather app I had mentioned a smattering of showers and then mostly clearing. Even when we lined up for our tour the guide mentioned that it rarely rains in Barcelona, and upon further research Wikipedia mentions there might be two days of rain in July.

I believe both of those days were packed into this Monday.

Gaudi's Most Comfortable Bench - ⁨Park Güell⁩
Gaudi’s Most Comfortable Bench – ⁨Park Güell⁩

The tour was nice enough, although it would have been better with blue skies and sun, but we got to learn how Gaudi was really ahead of the times when it came to conservation and the environment. We also learned of his disdain for corners, thus all edges were rounded. He designed some of the most comfortable, hard benches, complete with their own drainage system, he created a giant rain barrel that filtered the water for the plants and fountains, and had a great vision for a city of nature that most no-one at the time wanted.

Super Salamander

The tour was over, and it would have been nice to stay, but, alas, we probably should have used Spanish weather apps because those United States’ versions we had turned out to be completely wrong. Yup, the downpours that would continue throughout the day began. It was time to exit “Whoville” and head to someplace indoors, someplace we could eat, and that someplace ended up being at a location with some fine Sangria in an area called La Boqueria, just off La Rambla.

I Had What Phil Had

Quim De La Boqueria

As luck would have it, a few days before our trip to Spain, TV dude Phil Rosenthal was on a podcast I listen to, Noah Kagan Presents. Now I knew of Phil Rosenthal from his days of being the man behind “Everybody Loves Raymond,” but little did I know he had this food show, first on PBS as “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having,” and now on Netflix as “Somebody Feed Phil.” During the podcast Phil mentioned that the archives list every restaurant he visited for the shows. I was curious, any chance he went to Barcelona?

Holy shit, he did!

There, on an episode of “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having,” was Barcelona. So, between packing and planning for our trip, I told my wife there was a show we needed to watch.

Two Fried Eggs with Baby Squid - El Quim de la Boqueria
Two Fried Eggs with Baby Squid – El Quim de la Boqueria

While most of the restaurants from the show were already booked (Dang it, Phil, why couldn’t you have been on Noah’s podcast about three month’s earlier), we took a shot at finding El Quim de La Boqueria, one of the shop restaurants at La Boqueria.

We arrived before they opened (who opens for “breakfast” at Noon?), and people were already sitting on the few stools surrounding the place, even before the metal shutters were opened. My wife and I secured our spot and waited.

Quim Marquez Making the Eggs - El Quim de la Boqueria
Quim Marquez Making the Eggs – El Quim de la Boqueria

With the show being a few years old, would they still have it, 2 fried eggs with baby squid?

They did.

We ended up with the eggs, slow-cooked pork rib, and some of the best Sangria we had while in Spain.

Sure, we ate too much, but we didn’t care as it was worth it. Thanks Phil for the recommendation!

Like Home, Then Better Than “Like Home”

Bier Cab
Bier Cab

Still with some time to kill, and worried about the weather, my wife, who loves me very much, and knows I love her very much, and also knows I love beer, suggested we hit a couple of places with beer. CocoVail Beer Hall is the perfect spot for Americans who want to feel as if they were back in America, but for a better selection of beers from all over, I suggest Bier CaB. I had beer from Spain, even one from the good old U. S. of A, but I was just worried that, with my propensity towards darker, high alcohol content beers, I might be too tipsy for God. Why? After the beer joints the next stop was La Sagrada Familia.

This Is What The Alan Parsons Project Was Singing About?

Sagrada Familia
Sagrada Familia

My introduction to La Sagrada Familia comes from the song, by the same name, by The Alan Parsons Project. The intro references Antoni Gaudi, and the church, and how it may never be finished.

After seeing the cathedral, I agree – It may never be finished, at least not it the vision Gaudi had.

The Crucifix at Sagrada Familia
The Crucifix at Sagrada Familia

In any case, making our way to La Sagrada Familia, I had one concern, namely hoping that the next burst of rain would hold off until we made our way through the line to the entrance which was outside. Luckily we made it inside, complete with our recorded, guided tour, and it was time to see one of the most impressive feats of architecture I have witnessed.

The Crucifixion - The Passion Facade - Sagrada Familia
The Crucifixion – The Passion Facade – Sagrada Familia

The thing is Gaudi started his vision of the church back in the 1880’s, and for me the most spectacular part was the area that was completed when he was alive, before modern machinery, cranes, lifts, etc, The Nativity Facade. It is a wondrous wall of stonework dedicated to the birth of Christ. There was Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, and a soldier throwing a baby, depicting the story of the Massacre of the Innocents from the book of Matthew in the bible. Weirdly wonderful.

The Massacre of the Innocents - The Nativity Facade - Sagrada Familia
The Massacre of the Innocents – The Nativity Facade – Sagrada Familia

As the weather was crappy, there would be no cramped elevator rides into the spires, but that was okay because just wandering around the church, seeing the immenseness, and viewing the impeccable detail, was fascinating as it was.

Of man-made buildings, it will probably stand out as one of the greatest things I have ever seen.

Hello Michelin Man, Carles Abellan!

With our stay in the city complete it was time to change accommodations to a location on the beach, and finally some nice weather!

Chef Abellan Shows How It's Done
Chef Abellan Shows How It’s Done

My being somewhat of a food snob, the fact that the hotel had a restaurant, La Barra de Carles Abellan, with a Michelin Star rated chef made me slightly giddy. A phone call was made, a dude answered the phone, and my request for a reservation for two for that evening was met with hesitation. He said, “Can you make 7:30?”, and in my head I’m thinking, “I’m an old American. Dude you can seat me at 4PM, and I’d be happy.” Rather than replying with what was in my head, I answered, “That would be great! See you then!”

Watch Your Food Being Made at La Barra
Watch Your Food Being Made!

The restaurant is laid out with a variety of cooking areas. In the center of the counter area where we were seated is the grilling location where the meats are cooked over lump charcoal. Every now and then, especially when stoked, a spray of sparks darted around the area. It was fun, like being at a backyard barbecue! Along the wall is another food prep area, by the windows you find the bartender, and on two, giant TV’s you can watch the magic happening in the kitchen. Yes, from the time your food order gets printed in the kitchen to the plates arriving at your table, you can see the staff scurry around preparing your meal.

The wait staff was fantastically helpful explaining the variety of food choices. We skipped going right for a cocktail, instead having some of the chef’s blended wine creations at the beginning of our meal.

Tsukiji Oyster - Las Barra From Carles Abellan
Tsukiji Oyster – Las Barra From Carles Abellan

I had never slurped oysters before, so I figured this was probably a great place where I wouldn’t be grossed out by an oyster, and the Tsukiji Oyster was fantastic. The Galacian Cockles, La Barra Style were tasty, and the Grilled Stuffed Squid with Spicy Egg Yolk had no rubbery texture at all.

Tiny Mushrooms

Damn, those tapas were fantastic, but some main dishes were also in order. The server recommended the “Great Wall” Red Mullet. I had never had mullet before, it was cooked to perfection and had the cutest, little mushrooms in the salad “base” of the dish. Entertainment was also on tap as we were watching our Garlic Shrimp Rice being prepared on the giant TV’s, and as one of the staff almost messed it up we could see Chef redirect him the correct way of preparing the dish.

Garlic Shrimp Rice - La Barra de Carles Abellan
Garlic Shrimp Rice – La Barra de Carles Abellan

People pay extra to have seats in the “kitchen,” but this experience came without the added expense!

While my wife was finishing the best Sangria she had on the trip, and I was working on my “El Estibador,” a cocktail that somehow incorporated IPA beer syrup, there was no way we were skipping dessert. Upon the slightly odd recommendation, we skipped my normal “dive right into anything chocolate,” and went with the Brie Cake with Melanosporum Truffle. Sure, Melanosporum is a fancy word for black truffle, Périgord truffle or French black truffle, and the thought of just “brie” seemed weird, but this was one of the best desserts I’ve had.

Relaxing with full bellies, it was fun watching Chef Abellan train what appeared to be a newer staff. He directed some of the servers how to stand with pride, he explained some of the finer points of adding spices to the dishes, and was doing what he could to whip everyone into shape. Very personable, we chit-chatted with the Chef a bit, before heading back to our room to rest for the next day.

Have Fun Stormin’ the Castle!

The next day found us with a morning and afternoon to kill. We killed most of the morning sleeping, grabbed a late breakfast, and watched a toddler pee on a tree. It was quite exciting. We needed, however, something to do for the afternoon.

The Massive Sagrada Familia
The Massive Sagrada Familia

My wife did some searching for things to do, and a short cab ride later we were in the funicular, going up a mountain to a fortress that at one time protected Barcelona.

Yup, it was time for a visit to Montjuic Castle.

Montjuic Castle
Montjuic Castle

The castle was pretty much what you would expect a castle to be. The first version was built in 1640 as a military fortress, after a few upheavals it was destroyed and the new version was built, and whereas it was supposed to be a fortress, history says that for the most part it ended up a prison and place to torture folks. There was what used to probably be a moat, a drawbridge, and giant doors to protect the castle.

Guard House - Montjuic Castle
Guard House – Montjuic Castle

Inside was now fitted with museum rooms, but for me the most exciting thing, and I don’t know why, was getting to the top of the castle and going into the guard towers in the corners.

Busted Noses and a Short Virgin Mary

Another day over, another day just begun, and it was a trip to Montserrat Monastery.

The Black Madonna of Montserrat
The Black Madonna of Montserrat

Located about an hour outside of Barcelona, the easiest way to get to the top of the mountain is this thing called a rack railway which, to me, seemed kind of like an elevated train from Chicago carved into the side of a mountain. Our bus dropped us off at the station and a short ride later our tour guide let us know about some of the history of Montserrat. She explained the various times it was conquered, and why, if you toured the stations of the cross, some statues were missing noses while other statues were just missing.

Statue Missing a Nose - Montserrat
Statue Missing a Nose – Montserrat

With the guide letting us roam on our own, the first destination was to head into the very ornate Basilica of Montserrat and see “Our Lady of Montserrat.” It’s a small statue of the Madonna and Child, and is one of the few, original, Black Madonnas.

The statue is just over three feet tall, so it’s really kind of tiny, and as the story goes, to protect the statue, it was hidden in a cave and became darker in color due to the candle smoke from visitors to the cave.

Cross on the Top of the Hill
Cross on the Top of the Hill

We saw the statue and then headed outside to tour the stations of the cross where we saw the broken noses and really, kind of odd, replacement “statues.” An extra hour or two to check out Montserrat would have been nice, but it was time for a late lunch, and then we got to take the scary bus ride down the mountain.

Why Didn’t I Google Map “Sangria” Earlier

Sangria and Tapas - BarCeloneta Sangria Bar
Sangria and Tapas – BarCeloneta Sangria Bar

With our trip beginning to wind down, my wife and I both wanted a last, decent Sangria. The normal bars in the W Barcelona didn’t serve the greatest Sangria, so I searched the Google Maps for “Sangria.” What popped up a short walk down the beach? “BarCeloneta Sangria Bar.

I said, “Honey, it’s a sangria bar. We should go there!”, and what we discovered was this cute, little vegan restaurant.

The Beach of Barcelona
The Beach of Barcelona

Tucked away down a street in “Barceloneta,” all I know is maybe it was a good thing we didn’t find it earlier, although I also was kind of sad, because similar to the La Barra sangria, their sangria was wonderful. They had six different version with alcohol and two non-alcohol versions of sangria, and even though I’m not vegan, their menu looked yummy.

I had the “Denise,” my wife had the “Venus,” we shared a plate of great tasting tapas, and sadly had to be on our way.

Adios España!

Planes, A Train, A Bus, and An Automobile

Why the Pooping Magnets?

While we hated to leave, it was time to head back home. Barcelona airport treated us well although I still don’t understand the magnets and statues of things pooping. My experience in Germany is still just in airports as we had our layover in Frankfort and got to take a fun train ride between terminals, and an uneventful flight to Chicago left with no train, it’s still being fixed, so we got a bus between terminals to get us back to our car.

There was joy in the house as Milo, our little bundle of doggy joy, realized it was us who had come in the door. He yelped, spun around, yelped some more, jumped up, spun around some more, and finally we felt at home.

A wonderful adventure had come to a close, and now it was time to plan for the next one. Anyone up for some Kokkinisto, or maybe rēwena, or maybe tsukemono pickles. Who knows where we’ll end up!

Eating Our Way Through Austin

It started with an email to business dude and podcaster, Noah Kagan, “I like a great donut, and wondered if you know any awesome bakery or breakfast spots where we can start our tours of the Austin area?”

He nicely replied how he wasn’t a donut guy, but Voodoo Donuts was “famous on 6th Street”. I thought, “Who doesn’t like a good donut?”, but to each their own I suppose. I kept reading, “… for diners hit up a greasy mexican one like ciscos or joe’s bakery. either will serve ya dirty.”

The quest was on!

Austin in February?

Who goes to Austin in February, anyway? It wasn’t supposed to be that way. My wife and I had planned to visit about six months earlier, but a bum knee caused a cancellation of plans. A knee was bummed, and we were bummed as Austin was one of those places we just wanted to visit. You know, you hear good things and want to experience good things, so we wanted good things in Austin.

Adios Snow!

As the season of fall came to Chicago, and the dreadful thoughts of winter began, discussions turned to a long weekend getaway that would be needed for some rejuvenation from the seasonal affective disorder that was sure to arrive. Maybe the Caribbean? How about the Florida Keys?

What about Austin?

The weather might not be perfect, but it sure will be better than the cold depths of hell Chicago will probably be experiencing in the middle of winter.

Here Comes 91 Degrees!

Austin it was!

Turns out it was the perfect weekend to be in Austin. Austin would have a record high temperature 91 degrees, and Chicago would just be escaping from a polar vortex with -22 degree temperatures and wind chills of -50. Sweet!

A Quick Note

This story is mostly about food. Austin has a boatload of other stuff to do, and while we did eat a lot over the course of our visit, we did enjoy other aspects of Austin, eventually got the courage to ride one of those scooter things, and relaxed. Those things are stories for another time, let’s get to the food!

Lunch, and It Turns Out, Dinner

Arriving on a Wednesday, by the time we checked into the hotel we were hungry and tired. The tricky part was that it was already past lunch and on the way to dinner time. Not wanting to drive anywhere, my wife and I ventured across Lady Bird Lake to the downtown area, settling on the first place we could find, 2nd Bar and Kitchen.

Short Rib & Mushroom Cheesesteak and Avocado Fundido

It wasn’t the fanciest of meals as we shared the black truffle pommes frites, Avocado Fundido, and Short Rib & Mushroom Cheesesteak. The truffle fries were not too greasy, which is nice, watch out for the jalapeño peppers on the cheesesteak, they’ll sneak up on you, but the star of this show was the Avocado Fundido, a tasty queso you won’t want to pass on.

2nd Bar and Kitchen was a nice, first step on a culinary journey for the next five days!

Long Walk. Wrong Shoes.

Notice the Wooden Shutters

Who decides they should walk 3/4 of a mile following a good meal to visit The Texas Capitol in shoes that aren’t really made for 3/4 of a mile of walking? My wife and I. Yup, the capitol building beckoned us, seductively sitting there at the end of Congress Street, and at the time it didn’t seem that far away. The weather was nice, what the heck, let’s walk!

God bless my wife, and I suppose I’ve subtly noticed this before, but her concern for cleanliness truly came through as, while we were coming upon the capitol, she noticed the wooden shutters on all of the windows. She smartly commented wondering who cleans them, and what thickness of dust must be on said shutters.

The Texas Senate

I am happy to report that as we did our own tour of the building, the senate chambers had the cleaner of the shutters when compared to the representatives side, however, my wife was impressed that they were both much cleaner than she expected. Congratulations Texas, your tax dollars are being put to good use, at least in terms of clean shutters.

What is He Doing?

It was a neat visit, complete with a fountain that looked like a little boy playing with, well, what little boys might play with, but suddenly the realization we had to walk another 3/4 plus mile back to the hotel came upon us.

Being older folks, the thought of using the scooters frightened us, so we hoofed it back to 6th street, walked the wrong direction on 6th to the normal looking bar life instead of the more fun looking bar life (Head east young man!), and we both gave up. It was time for an Uber.

An Uber driver with a Dodge Charger arrived, and he was nice enough but failed to realize that the Charger back seat is nearly unlivable if you have giant bags of snacks hanging on the rear of the front seats. With our knees pressed into our chests as to try not to crush his offering of snacks, he got us back to our hotel where I proceeded to somehow fall asleep from exhaustion. My day was done, much to the surprise of my wife.

The Best Breakfast of the Trip

A Fun Cowgirl Mural

With a busy day ahead of us I convinced my wife that my guy Noah wouldn’t steer us wrong on food, so we drove to Cisco’s.

Holy crap was this a great idea!

Rolling up on the corner of East 6th and Comal, a blue building with a mural of cowgirls with plant life covering their private parts greeted us on one side of the building while flying pigs and a mariachi band greeted us on the other.

Inside Cisco’s

Inside was the kind of place I had hoped for, and exactly what Noah described, a classic diner that will “serve ya dirty.” In my world that really means “is no frills and has some awesome food.”

A Great Breakfast!

Sitting at the counter where we could watch the cooking magic happen, I opted for the Huevos Rancheros because, well, the menu mentioned “The man who made Huevos Rancheros famous.” My wife chose the Potato / Egg Taco and the Migas Taco. My Huevos Rancheros were yummy, but after trying my wife’s choices, I now understood the joy of a breakfast taco.

Let me simply say that breakfast at Cisco’s was a treat. From the food to the atmosphere, both of us, upon reflection of our trip, wished we had revisited Cisco’s for another breakfast.

Moon. Hills. Dam. Beer.

Should I Get My Nails Done, Get a Tattoo, or Get Coffee?

An upcoming afternoon of travel required some caffeine, so why not try something different, something Austin, and something recommended by my sister-in-law. That something ended up being Summer Moon Wood-Fired Coffee, made with this other something called Moon Milk. I ended up with a Wintermoon, described as, “Our signature iced latte blended with Moon Milk: seven secret ingredients to bring you sweet, creamy goodness!”

It was creamy, the coffee was tasty, and it was goodness. It is a tad sweet, so if you want it toned down a bit go for the “half” version of the Wintermoon (iced latte) or the Summermoon (hot latte).

Damn, It’s a Dam!

With my caffeine need satisfied, it was time for wandering aimlessly through the countryside. We found a place called Buda, a town called Dripping Springs, and made our way to Lakeway, which I kept calling “Lake-Away” for some reason. Why the driving tour? To see the Austin countryside, and a dam, of course.

“You need some deodorant!”

Okay, it wasn’t really to see a dam, but to see the results of a dam, namely Lake Travis.

It was a warm day but overcast, so the impression of Lake Travis didn’t have the impact I thought it might, but what did impact me was the amount of hilliness that was prevalent in our drive. Winding roads, hills, and scenic views abounded. I don’t know why I found it weird, I suppose mostly because when us northerners think of Texas we imagine flat, oil fields and sprawling cattle ranches, but the area south and west of Austin is anything but flat, it’s downright beautifully scenic.

Lake Travis

Needing a little grub before our big dinner that night, we found ourselves at Oasis Texas, a complex of shops and restaurants situated on Lake Travis. Much of the complex was shut down for the winter season, but happily Oasis Texas Brewing Company was open. It was happy hour, I had a beer that paid homage to the Chicago White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson, a barrel-aged wee heavy beer right up my alley called “He Gone!” The chicken slider was very salty, but the wagyu slider hit the spot.

I could see why Oasis Texas is considered “The Sunset Capital of Texas,” situated above Lake Travis with what is probably a spectacular sunset view, but there would be no sunset for us as the cloudy skies and our fancy dinner reservations had us back down hilly roads to downtown for some freshening up before dinner.

Why Did Dessert Have to Let Me Down?

Ready for Olamaie!

It being Valentine’s Day, and both my wife and I liking fancy dining, we found ourselves at Olamaie, a house converted to an acclaimed restaurant, and ready for a food experience and biscuits. I say, “and biscuits” as Olamaie is known for their biscuits, so much so that the biscuits have their own spot on the Olamaie web site, with special ordering for just biscuits. These must be some pretty darn special biscuits. Time would tell.

Gulf White Shrimp & Jefferson Rice

Their Valentine’s Day menu was of the prix fix variety, offering various choices of an appetizer starter, main course, and dessert.

We both had the Gulf White Shrimp & Jefferson Red Rice as the starter, with a large helping of shrimp and my first taste of red rice. Things were off to a great start.

The Olamaie Beef Tenderloin

With the main course my wife opted for the snapper, while I enjoyed a perfectly prepared beef tenderloin. The sauce wasn’t overpowering, you could almost cut the beef with a fork, and snapper was nicely done as well.

Yay for part two!

Many a time my wife and I will skip dessert at a restaurant because, unless a restaurant is known for it’s dessert, things will fall apart. For this dinner our dessert was part of the price, so angel food cake was the choice for my wife, and as I am a chocolate lover, the dark chocolate cake made its way to my table setting.

Yes, the Olamaie magic shell on top of the cake was fun, but maybe too magical as you really needed more than a spoon to crack it open. The black cherry ice cream was a complete necessity as the cake was a dry disappointment, and for once a chocolate dessert let me down. Maybe it was the anticipation that it should have been wonderful and wasn’t, and even my wife’s angel food cake was, as she put it, just okay.

What a bummer because the rest of dinner was up there with the best of them, and yes, the biscuits are that good to warrant their own spot on the web site.

No Food, but What Would An Austin Trip Be Without Music?

Austin is known for its music scene, and when my wife and I planned this trip we wanted to experience some of it. Little did we know that we would see a little band of musicians on a street corner in an unplanned music event, but on the planned side we bought tickets for Bob Schneider at The Moody Theater, home of Austin City Limits Live.

Bob Schneider and The Moonlight Orchestra

While I do try to stay on top of the music scene, I had never heard of Bob Schneider, nor the Moonlight Orchestra who was with him. That didn’t deter us as we did some listening to his music online and said, “Sure, he sounds like a good time. And heck, he’s playing the famous Moody Theater on Valentine’s Day. How bad can it be?”

It wasn’t bad at all even if it was a night of music I really didn’t know, short of a few covers like Barry Manilow’s, “Mandy” in tribute to the TV show “The Bachelor.”

The show was fun, included sing-a-longs, and introduced me to a musician now in rotation on my music playlists.

Decent Coffee. Skip the Taco.

Good Coffee, Okay Taco.

Jo’s Coffee on Congress was another recommendation to us by someone who had been to Austin, and looking at their menu showed they also served breakfast tacos. They do a decent marketing ploy as on their menu it states, “We offer house made tacos daily starting at 7AM until they’re gone.”

“Damn, those must be some in-demand tacos. I hope they don’t sell out by the time we get there.” Sadly, it wouldn’t have been so bad if they did sell out because there was no comparison in Jo’s Coffee breakfast taco to the likes of the fantastic Cisco’s taco the morning before.

I Love You So Much, Austin!

I opted for their “Iced Turbo” latte which kind of reminded me of the Summer Moon coffee in terms of sweetness from the day before. It was tasty, and would have been more tasty with a better taco.

Also a great marketing ploy on their part, they join in the “You have to take a picture at their mural” craze with their “i love you so much.” painted on the side of their building. Yup, a picture was in order.

Let’s Skip the Driving and Get some BBQ?

Another day of aimless driving took us north to the town of Georgetown where both my wife and I kind of agreed, “What the heck are we doing driving around aimlessly? Let’s get some barbecue.”

Terry Black’s BBQ

Heading back to downtown the choices were many, but we quickly realized that Terry Black’s BBQ was within walking distance from where we were staying, and with a record high temperature on its way to Austin, we should really enjoy the weather and the path by Lady Bird Lake.

A brief walk in the summer-like air found us in a line that took about 30 minutes, impeded mostly by tourists who couldn’t seem to make up their minds at the buffet of sides. As both my wife and I really don’t like the buffet concept, watching too many people with not so great hygiene scoop gobs of mac and cheese, potato salad, and green beans, we should have bypassed most people in line and headed right for the meat counter. We waited patiently, however, analyzed the menu, and settled on no sides, just meat by the pound with a mix of pork ribs, beef ribs (I always forget how big a beef rib is as most of Illinois barbecue just offers pork ribs), and brisket.

Skip the Sides, Get the Meat

Most people will comment that there really isn’t any bad barbecue in Austin, and while we didn’t try a lot of it, I will say that Terry Black’s BBQ was pretty damn good. Well seasoned, not too spicy, and juicy as you would expect, we were glad we skipped the sides and stuck with just the meat. I remember making the mistake of filling up with salad and sides at a Brazilian style restaurant once, and not having room in my belly for the meat, so I didn’t want to make that mistake again. Do yourself a favor, and unless you really must have mac-n-cheese or beans, skip the sides – you are at a barbecue place for barbecue. Enjoy.

Hold the Salt, Pass the Ice Cream

Mandala Spring Rolls

After two days of consuming more salt than our bodies have probably had in years, my wife and I needed something that wouldn’t cause our blood pressure to reach new heights. Okay, maybe a bowl of ramen wouldn’t really solve that problem, but luckily Ramen Tatsu-Ya on S. Lamar had a line around the building so we wandered around and found ourselves at Mandala Kitchen and Bar, a Vietnamese & Thai restaurant at this nice little restaurant/entertainment complex on S. Lamar.

Really Good Chicken Pad Thai at Mandala’s

With the rest of my family hauling their way from Houston to visit us in Austin later that evening, we didn’t want to over-eat as there would be more food later, so we opted for their spring rolls with tofu and some chicken pad thai.

Wow, that hit the spot. The spring rolls were fresh and crisp, like you want a spring roll to be, and the tofu wasn’t mushy. The pad thai had perfectly prepared noodles, and we both agreed it was some of the best pad thai we have had in a while.

Actually, our initial thought for a little less salt began with a desire for ice cream, and as luck would have it, right around the corner from Mandala was an ice cream shop called “Lick Honest Ice Creams.

While yes, they do have some fairly normal ice cream flavors, Lick is really about mixing up tastes to create unique ice cream. I mean, when was the last time you opted for a scoop of Lemon Poppy Seed or Roasted Beets and Fresh Mint ice cream? I stayed relatively safe in my choices with a scoop of Dark Chocolate, Olive Oil & Sea Salt, paired with Hill Country Honey with Vanilla Bean, and after the last taste, was happy with my choice, as well as happy that I didn’t need a gallon of water to balance out the salt.

Let’s Skip Dinner and Get Right to Breakfast

Migas Plate with Bacon at Joe’s Bakery

With my family’s late arrival, we opted to just hang out at the hotel, grab some grub and a few drinks, and catch up after not having seen each other for three years. The food was, well, hotel food, so let’s move right on to breakfast the next day.

As I mentioned earlier, a second breakfast recommendation was Joe’s Bakery, and I must say that Joe’s did not disappoint. We appeared to have timed it perfectly as Joe’s was able to accommodate our party of eight, and everyone proceeded to dive in. Migas plates, breakfast tacos, and Chicharrone filled the area, and when it was noticed that a lot of patrons were buying this cake with pink icing, we asked our server,

Go to Joe’s Bakery, Get Pink Cake

“What is that cake with the pink icing everyone is buying?” She nicely replied, “Pink cake.”


My family was impressed I knew of a good breakfast spot (Thanks, Noah!), so I was the star of the day, and if you want a solid piece of cake with pink icing, may I recommend the pink cake!

Ping Pong and Beer

My Ping Pong Pose

The bummer part of the morning and afternoon with my family was not that I had to spend the morning and afternoon with my family, but rather the fact that as opposed to the day before, with a high of 91 degrees, the weather folks seemed to have no clue as to how to forecast the weather as three days earlier they said Saturday would be in the mid-70’s, but suddenly it was a day mostly in the 50’s, with a decent breeze, and no sun. So much for all the outdoor fun we were planning.

Alas, to entertain ourselves until our fancy dinner that evening, it was decided that for a little bit we would try to hit each other with ping pong balls at Spin Austin to work off our breakfast, and then, since Jester King Brewery is really a better place for the outdoors, or so I’m told, we found ourselves at Austin Beerworks for some cold ones and an eight person game of Yahtzee.

The beer was tasty as I went for the beer flight with a holder that looks like a giant set of brass knuckles, and of course I stuck with the higher ABV stuff, with the likes of Gold Fist which is a Belgian strong golden ale, the Fire Eagle, because who doesn’t like a solid IPA, and Moon Shovel, a double IPA, wasn’t too shabby, either. Happily I wasn’t driving!

It was kind of a bummer about the weather, but hey, I kicked everyone’s ass in Yahtzee as I got Yahtzee not once, but twice. Yay, me!

A Food Quantity With a Good Vibe

When it was decided we were going to Austin, and it was further decided that my family was coming up from Houston, there was a lot of discussion about a restaurant that was up to the fancy standards of my wife and I, yet with a menu that would satisfy family members who aren’t so adventurous when it comes to their dining choices.

We decided on Launderette.

Launderette “Toasts”

Nicole was our server, and she was very concerned with our vibe, while all of us were concerned with how much to order. Encouraging sharing, and not sure how large the portions were, Nicole suggested we decide on our Snacky Bit and Toasts before we decided on our Wood Grill, Vegetables, and Specialties choices.

Yummy Branzino

The nice thing about having eight people and a lazy-susan in the middle of our round table meant that we could share a lot of the menu choices rather than settling on one thing. After deciding on Snacky Bits of the Fried Shrimp and Burrata, with Toasts of Crab & Avocado and Pastrami Salmon, Nicole guided our group through the perfect amounts of Pork Ribs, Hanger Steak, and a Whole Branzino off of the Wood Grill option, paired with Grilled Broccoli, Sticky Brussells Sprouts and Frites, a.k.a. french fries to most of us.

A Lazy Susan of Food

You would think that might be enough, but adding the Chicken Thighs and Bucatini, which is a fantastic duck and pork ragu with pecorino and pasta, turned out to be the perfect amount of food vibe.

Nicole seemed pleased with our choices.

The Launderette Apple Streusel Tart

The food proved just different enough to keep my family hesitant yet intrigued, and I was happy to introduce branzino to the group, which everyone thought was fantastic.

Unlike Olamaie where dessert fell flat, Launderette did not disappoint anyone in the group. The Chocolate Dirt Cake, an Apple Streusel Tart, Hibiscus Poached Pears, and some ice creams were enjoyed by all.

Yes, I did well in the eyes of my family with my food choices on this Saturday.

Secrets Belong on the Menu

Torchy’s Taco

The Austin Marathon was taking place the morning of our departure, so trying to get the family to Cisco’s for breakfast seemed like a challenge none of us were up for. Instead, another recommendation we received was to get tacos from Torchy’s.

More like a chain restaurant, I discovered something in my research on Torchy’s and that was that they have secret menu. Go ahead, Google “Torchy’s Secret Menu” and you will find a range of options not on their menu with secret code phrases like “Jack of Clubs,” “Mad Cow,” and “The Matador.”

As I ordered the “Jack of Clubs” (Fried egg, potatoes, black beans, crisp corn tortilla strips, shredded cheese, cilantro, sour cream and Diablo served on a flour tortilla) the guy behind the counter gave me the look of “Yea, you know your Torchy’s.”

The taco was tasty enough, but man, it was no Cisco’s.

Donuts Only a Couple of Blocks Away?

While I had enjoyed a myriad of great recommendations from Noah Kagan and others about food choices, there was still one thing missing on my trip, a good donut. Yes, he mentioned Voodoo Donuts, but I wanted something more Austin. Who else might help? A man named Google Maps!

The Gourgough Airstreem

Knowing we would be at Torchy’s on South Congress, I asked Mr. Maps if there were any donut spots nearby. Sure enough, only a couple of blocks away, was a refurbished airstream travel trailer housing the likes of Gourdough’s Big. Fat. Donuts.

The Flying Pig from Gourdough

They were big. They were fat. And they were donuts with flavors like Mother Clucker (Fried chicken strip with honey butter), Fat Elvis (Grilled bananas & bacon with peanut butter icing and honey), Baby Rattler (Fudge icing & fudge oreos with a gummy rattlesnake), and my donut of choice, the Flying Pig with bacon and maple syrup icing.

Mama’s Cake Donut

Did I mention these were big, fat donuts? Holy crap! While I could have probably tried to eat my Flying Pig with my hands, I opted for the more dignified method of knife and fork. The maple syrup icing wasn’t too sweet, the bacon was, well, bacon, and the donut, even though gigantic and made in the trailer, wasn’t overcooked nor too doughy.

Mama’s Cake (Yellow cake batter filling with chocolate fudge icing) was enjoyed by my nephew, and for something a little more simple, go for the Naughty & Nice, a donut take on the classic cinnamon toast enjoyed by my wife.

A Belly Full of Goodness

Goodbye, Austin!

And so, Austin, you treated us well, and served us some wonderful food choices. I must say that the recommendations from a variety of folks aided nicely in our research of places to try, and while there were some items that didn’t live up to our hopes, there really wasn’t anything we tried that seemed like a complete waste of our caloric allotment. Okay, there wasn’t a caloric allotment on this trip, but happily there was enough walking to offset some of the, well, not-so-healthy food choices.

Go to Austin. Hear music. Eat food. You will not be disappointed. Yes, Austin is full of good things.

Is it Wrong to Swear While Visiting St. Peter’s Basilica?

It began with wanting to see the fires from hell. It ended with God. It began Oct 14, 2017. It ended May 19, 2018. It began with feeling like a fat loser at age 50. It ended with swearing while visiting St. Peter’s Basilica, and feeling like, well, I swore while visiting the Vatican.

Italy or Hawaii? First up, Hawaii.

The beauty of Hawaii
The Beauty of Hawaii

Back in mid 2017 my wife and I wanted to take a vacation, and October seemed like a good time to work it into our schedule. Since we met there were two destinations on our immediate vacation list, Italy and Hawaii. She had been to Italy previously and knew October might not be the best of times to go, but it seemed like a great time for Hawaii. The flights were booked, Airbnbs were secured, and there were four months to get in better shape, especially for a vacation destination that exudes “cool things await those who hike, or at least walk a lot.”

Me, I had one goal, to see the lava flows of Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island.

Kīlauea Volcano Crater
At Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii.

Back then Kilauea Volcano was fairly quiet and lava flows were hit or miss. This is in contrast to the explosiveness of today, with the lava fissures in Leilani Estates and the action at Overlook crater at the Kīlauea summit. Thinking back, maybe things were too quiet at the volcano when we visited. In any case, as we arrived one thing was certain, I didn’t get in good enough shape to have any chance to make it to where lava might be flowing.

Warning signs if you want to see the lava flow at Volcano National Park in Hawaii.
“Andy, You will die if you pass!”

The signs that were posted, I joked, all read, “Andy, you will die if you pass.” It was about a 10 mile hike, you should take at least 3 quarts of water, and you should have food and even flashlights. It was also hot on the day we visited, about 85 degrees. As much as I wanted to get pictures of lava flowing I knew I wasn’t in shape to do it. I tried to make myself feel better as a ranger mentioned there didn’t appear to be any visible lava flow that day, but in my heart I knew I really couldn’t make that hike because, well, I was still a fat loser.

Hawaii was over, but the thought of that failure lived on in my head.

Then came Italy.

With Hawaii behind us, my wife was immediately in “Let’s go to Italy next year!” mode. I was in. I mean, Italian food and gelato everywhere. Sure, I’m Polish, but I love me some good pasta!

In the back of my head, though, was the Hawaii failure.

St. Peter’s Basilica Dome

Initially it wasn’t that big a deal. I knew there would be a lot of walking in Italy, but nothing seemed completely out of reach for my fat self, that was until I learned of the cupola at St. Peter’s Basilica.

The cupola at St. Peter’s Basilica is, simply put, the outside of the top of the big dome. From the cupola you can get the greatest views of Rome, but to get to the cupola you have to climb stairs, a lot of stairs, 551 stairs from the bottom to the top. As taking pictures is one of the things I do, I wanted the best pictures, and to possibly get them I knew where I had to be, I needed to be at the cupo, St. Peter’s cupola, the hottest spot west of the Piazza.

Two choices to get to the cupola.

My wife is the one who mentioned the cupola to me, and the stairs. She also mentioned that there is an elevator to get to a terrace level that can give you a nice view, and a wonderful view inside the dome, but that elevator didn’t go all the way to the top. Sure, you can cut the stairs down to 320 by taking the elevator, but, if I was going to do this, I wanted the complete experience.

I now had a goal.

How, though, was I going to get this fat loser into any kind of shape to climb 551 stairs?

My “cupola climb” training tracker.

There was some preliminary weight loss as the year began, some extra time on a treadmill, but walking flat on a treadmill wouldn’t really be any preparation. Also, where was I going to find stairs to train on? Sure, I could join a gym with a stair-master, but I really don’t like going to the gym. It occurred to me, “We have stairs! Why don’t I train at home?”

At home we have two little flights of stairs, a total of 14 stairs. For shits and giggles I decided to see how many flights I could easily do, and there it was, four flights of stairs. “Crap, that’s only like 56 stairs.” I was curious, however, if it were possible to add one additional flight of stairs every day.

The most normal stairs on the trip to the cupola.

The plan was hatched. I even made a chart. I was going to use our stairs to train for the big day. I would start with four flights of stairs, and every day I would add one flight. By starting on March 14th, if I stuck with this plan of adding one flight of stairs a day, by the time we would leave for our trip I would be able to climb upwards of 896 stairs. I wanted to be over-trained, and I also didn’t know what the effect of walking up and down stairs did (I only counted the stairs going up), versus climbing stairs continually up as I would have to do at the cupola.

Every day I did my flights of stairs, at least for most of the days. I even decided, as my legs became stronger, to actually add two flights to the daily total, giving some extra training every day just in case there was a chance I couldn’t do the stairs for a day or two.

A clogged bathtub drain.

My training was going great, I was up to 602 stairs, and some bathroom cleaning was going on about 3 1/2 weeks before our trip. Our bathtub drain was getting a little slow, so hey, why not use one of those yellow “get the hair out” thingies. I’m leaning over the edge of the tub, pushing and pulling this “unclog your drain” gadget, when suddenly a sharp pain hit my right ribcage. The good news is I cleared the drain, but the bad news was that I was fairly certain I just gave myself a rib injury.

I didn’t think anything was broken, but my ribs were sore, sore enough to effect my ability to take full breaths, which in turn, I was certain, was going to effect my stamina to climb 551 stairs. I was not happy. Worse yet, I was worried that although I wouldn’t be as fat, I would be a loser again at another goal.

The line to pay to get to the cupola.

This was not good because I did not want to be a loser.

I took a few days off of my training, resting my ribs, but worried my legs would quickly lose their stamina. A training set was done a few days later, I made 47 flights at 658 stairs, but it was hard. There were a few more days off of training but, come the beginning of May, decided I needed to figure out a way to kick the training back in gear. I made it a couple of days, but my ribs were still sore. How the heck was I going to pull this off?

I tried a few days rest, a few days training, and yet my ribs still hurt, especially towards the end of my set when I was having to take larger breaths to supply my body with the oxygen it needed. This “adding one flight of stairs a day” seemed like a good idea early on, but with sore ribs it proved to be a chore.

One of the doorways on the stairway trip!

Then came a true test. It was one week before our visit to The Vatican, I was up to 854 stairs in my training at home, the up and down of the flights of stairs, and my ribs were still sore. Suddenly an opportunity came to climb to the eighth floor of a building, a total of about 300 stairs. Should be a piece of cake, right? Well, I made it, my ribs were killing me, I was totally out of breath because I couldn’t really breathe, and now I was simply thinking, “I can barely do 300 stairs with these ribs. How in the hell am I going to do 551?” I almost wanted to cry.

I decided my last course of training had to be lack of training. If I wanted to climb these stairs to the cupola I needed to be able to breathe, and even though my stair tracker had a few days left of training to go, I needed to rest my ribs. No more stairs, no more exertion, I decided I would try to limit things, get to Italy, and see what would happen.


I really didn’t need extra stairs while on the Vatican Museum tour.

The day arrived. It was a beautiful Saturday in Rome, and we made our way to The Vatican. I hadn’t really done any exercise for a week, my ribs were feeling pretty good, or at least not sore, but another test was first, our tour. Yes, before even attempting the stairs we booked a tour of The Vatican so we could beat the crowds. What was I thinking? I had 551 stairs to try to climb, and here I am on a three hour tour, walking around The Vatican Museum, standing in the Sistine Chapel, and walking, low and behold, up and down stairs.

I will say the tour was great, interesting, and informative, but with every step and every stair all I could think was how I was using up the energy I was going to need to climb to the cupola. Did I overtrain enough? Isn’t this tour over yet? Not another flight of stairs that aren’t part of my cupola stairs! Ugh!

This way to the 551 stairs!

Finally the tour was over. Holy crap, I had already walked about three miles according to my Apple Watch, but the time had come. My ribs felt fine, I made my way to the line to the cupola, and there was the sign, “Andy, you will die if you pass.” Okay, it was a warning that there were two ways up, all stairs or you can cheat with the elevator for part of the way. If you intended to try to get to the cupola there were still a lot of stairs, but another sign was a little more direct, “Warning! Individuals with serious heart or circulatory conditions or with major physical disabilities are not advised to walk up to the cupola (551 steps). The strain may have very dangerous consequences to your health.”

I had my ticket!

I have to admit there was part of me, with the decision between elevator or all stairs in front of me, to chicken out and take the elevator, but I said, “You can do this. This is what you trained for. Suck it up, save the two euros, and get walking!”

So I did. I paid my eight euros, got my ticket, and proceeded to begin the climb.

That’s Not So Bad

Normal stairs to the cupola.

The first batch of 231 stairs wasn’t that bad. While circular, they tended to be larger stairs, decent in width, with some ledge style stairs where you actually take a few steps between stairs at times. In fact this batch is kind of a tease. I’m all like, “La de da! This is a piece of cake!”

I emerge from the first batch at the terrace, some construction is going on, but there it is, the real entrance to the journey to the top of the dome. As you enter you are first treated to a view most never see because they either don’t want to pay for that first batch of stairs, or the elevator for that matter.

St. Peter’s dome selfie!

You get a view of the inside of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, from up high. It is a stunning perspective of the basilica, looking down on the vastness of the church, and looking around at the grandioseness of the dome itself. Beautiful mosaics adorn the walls, and for this the few euros is just about worth the expense, even if you don’t want the outside view that awaits up the rest of the stairs.

Welcome to the Funhouse

Me, though, I wanted that outside view, but you don’t get that view without what can almost be described as a funhouse of a climb to get you to the top.

Climbing is like a funhouse at times.

Wacky stairs at the cupola.

First off the stairs have now become narrow as you are essentially climbing in an area between the walls of the inside of the dome and the walls of the exterior of the dome. It’s also fun because the stairs will slope one direction while the walls are sloping in the opposite direction, giving you a walk that has you tilted in various angles.

More spiral stairs.

Then there are the spiral staircases. Spiral staircases seem to be here, there, and just when you think there aren’t any more, bam, more spiral staircases. I’m climbing, some young, punk kids, and I only call them “punk” because they are in shape and running up the stairs like it’s a jog in the park, catch up to me so I let them pass, I catch up to someone who looks in decent shape but is fairly winded, and we both stop for about 20-30 seconds in a little alcove out of the way of others who want to pass.

I have no concept of how many stairs are left because, well, I didn’t count them as I was climbing, but I hoped I was fairly close. You see, during my training, as I was getting to the end, whenever I had four flights of stairs left I said a mental “You were able to do four flights of stairs when you started this training. Finish this!”, and for most of the balance of the upper portion I kept telling myself, “There can’t be more than four flights left!”

You might like the rope on this spiral staircase.

Here’s the thing, as you are climbing the funhouse stairs in the actual dome, there is a spot towards the end where you suddenly get to some metal staircases. They are normal, you are happy, but ahead marks what you will think is the worst spiral staircase of them all. Climb, hold on to the rope, because there is one, and like me, you will emerge, and maybe you might say…

“Holy shit, I made it!”

Yes, I dropped the s-bomb at the top of St. Peter’s Basilica.

I made it to the top, and I swore.

It was a feeling of complete elation! I did it! Should I see if Pope Francis would hear my confession? At least it wasn’t an f-bomb!

I was also overwhelmed, and I really wasn’t sure what to do next. Do I Snapchat my view, text my wife, take pictures, shoot video? So, at first, I just tried to soak it in, which was kind of tough because the cupola was packed. Sure, this 51 year old schlub made it, was ecstatic that he made it, but there were plenty of folks up at the top like,”What, that wasn’t so bad?” I didn’t care, though, because for me it was it was a little bit of redemption for not making it to the lava, or even trying, that day in Hawaii.

Here’s the thing, though, I enjoyed the view, took a selfie, took the proverbial pictures, I didn’t text my wife because I was saving money on our phone plan, but then it was time to go.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Going down the spiral stairs can be scary!

All of the stories I read, and videos I saw of climbing to the cupola mentioned the challenge of going up, but none of them talked about going down. I will say that as kind of freaky it was going up all of the spiral staircases, going down actually was worse. Why? Going up you can kind of see where you are placing your feet, but going down was more like lower foot, feel for the step, hope you are on enough of the step to hold you until the next step, and continue. Oh, and there are no handrails to hold, just a wall and the center post, both of which are there mostly to maintain your balance and lean against as opposed to grab.

You have to walk back down after the fabulous view.

After navigating the super-tight, spiral staircases, things get more weird as the trip down is also one of the best thigh workouts, or will put the most stress you have ever felt on your quads and knees ever, as most of the steps are pitched down. Picture walking down a giant hill, one step at a time if the hill were steps.

On the way down the stop on the terrace level is nice, and you can get a nice view of where you were at the top of the cupola. There is a gift shop, which sadly doesn’t have any t-shirts “I walked to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica!” There’s a little cafe and views of the backside of statues where, if you look closely enough, you will see how they keep the birds from landing on the statues.

The end of the cupola trip.

Finally, you are heading down the last batch of stairs, and there it is, the exit, depositing you into the basilica where you can head back to the altar, look up, and point, “I was way up there!”

I found my wife where she said she would meet me. I hugged her, and my eyes welled up with tears. I could tell she was proud of me because she hugged me back, even though I was a sweaty, stair climber.

I had done it. After tormenting myself since our vacation to Hawaii and feeling like a fat loser, there I was, a chubby winner at age 51. Now I just needed to find the Pope and confess my swearing, and plan a future trip for a new goal. I hear Australia has a big bridge you can climb!

The Front or The Back

I’ve been slowly working on editing my myriad of concert pictures that I put on my Flickr site. Some of my favorites are Green Day. It was a concert back in 2005 at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, IL. (I still need to clean up my old concert review pages – sorry for the bad formatting if you go there).

Two of my favorite pictures from that concert are of Billy Joe Armstrong.

One is his front:

Billy Joe Armstrong - Green Day

The other is his back:

Billy Joe Armstrong - Green Day

Leave me a comment of which you like better.

Drippy Goo – Heliconia bihai cv. Lobster Claw One

Looking through some of my Hawaii pictures on my Flickr pages recently, mostly because I’m freezing my behind off here in Chicago and would rather be there, I’m still fascinated by the goo cascading off this plant. It kind of looks like icicles, but definitely is not as the picture is from the Hawaii Botanic Tropical Gardens. I believe it might be a Heliconia bihai cv. Lobster Claw One, but don’t quote me on that.

Drippy Goo

Lights and Ice

Lights and Ice

Barnard Griffin WineryWhile we were out in Washington state for a wedding, me, my wife, and her family had some time to kill. Sure, we were hoping for better weather, but coming from Chicago we weren’t going to let a little ol’ ice storm keep us down.

We were off to a winery!

My wife found a place, Barnard Griffin Winery, and they had a place to eat.

Pouring Samples at Barnard GriffinVenturing out into the icy wilderness, or at least the Tri-Cities, we made our way from Pasco to Richland.

Things might have been slippery, but the wine was great, our man did a wonderful job of explaining the various tastings on the history of the winery, and a good time was had by all.

Don’t forget to stop by the little restaurant. The food is worth the trip, even if they didn’t actually use linguini for their linguini in white clam sauce.

Wine Tasting TimeIf you ever find yourself in Richland, Washington, I suggest you visit. Hopefully you’ll have less ice, and more light. You will definitely have great wine.

So You’re Going to Hawaii

Words or Pictures? Why not both!

The beauty of Hawaii

So you’re going to Hawaii? Ever since we met my wife and I wanted to visit the Paradise of the Pacific, and in October we were finally able to pull off the trip. We asked people for things to do, things to see, read the Hawaii guidebooks (these were awesomely helpful), and for this blog I wanted to share many of the things we experienced, hopefully giving you ideas if you ever make it to the Big Island or Kauai.

I’m a little torn, though. Why? There is the part of me that wants to do a full-blown blog post about our vacation to Hawaii. The dilemma? A full-blown post would be pages, and pages, and pages, long. Okay, really not pages, unless you printed it out, but you would just keep scrolling, and scrolling, and probably give up around Day 3. We were there for 12 days. You would miss a lot.

So, the question came to me, “How do I shorten this thing? Would people rather read things, or see things?” Duh, seeing is easier, isn’t it?

My solution? A mostly picture blog post. Pictures are easy. You can look and keep on scrolling. Intermixed with the pictures will be interludes and links to all things Hawaii, or at least all things our Hawaii trip.

Ready? Let’s go! (P.S. There are even more pictures on my Flickr site!)

Day 1 – Let’s Fly!

It was  a travel day. We took off in daylight, arrived in the dark, and settled into our Airbnb place. I found it weird that the rental just uses a normal, manual lock-box, and I also wondered, but doubted, if they ever changed the code. Part of me wants to fly back just to see if the code is the same.

Day 2 – Let’s Drive!

We had one goal while in Hawaii and that was not to be like a monk seal and lay on the beach all day. Don’t get me wrong, we had beach time planned, but we wanted to see things, visit things, and eat fun food. We jumped right into it on Day 2 by planning a trip down the west coast of the Big Island down to South Point.

Day 3 – The Beach is Hard

Having traveled the highway and byway of the west side of the Big Island we needed a day of rest. What better way to rest than at one of the best ranked beaches in the world, Hapuna Beach. The weather was perfect at the beach, but this was also the beginning of learning that the beach is hard. Well, laying on the beach is easy, but it was a long walk from the parking lot to the beach, and worse yet, uphill going back to the car. Sadly our sunset at a different beach, Anaeho’onalu Beach, wasn’t that great, but dinner at Roy’s Waikoloa Bar & Grill was a great way to wrap up our west side of the island trip!

Day 4 – Rain?

Kona, HI doesn’t get a lot of rain, but as the fates would allow our departure day saw the west and north side of the island get just about their month’s worth of the wet stuff on our travel day to the east side of the island. The rain hampered our hope of hiking down the trail at the Pololu Valley Lookout, but our travel around the north of the island, over to Hilo, and down to our “treehouse” in Volcano was just as adventure-filled as our Day 2 adventure along the west coast.

Day 5 – I Don’t Want to Die Today

It was time to see desolation, rebirth, and wonder all in one. It was volcano day and a trip to Volcanoes National Park. The Kilauea crater is mammoth, the Chain of Craters road takes you from lushness to desolation to ocean, and it was while at the ocean that the decision was made not to die on this day.

What do you want to see if you visit a volcano? Lava! The problem? Every sign on this day was saying, “Andy, if you try to go to see the lava you will die.” The hike to the lava was about five miles in and five miles back, in upper 80 degree heat. It was recommended that you take 3 quarts of water per person, snacks, and it would take at least 5 hours. Sure, there is all of that, and plenty of people make the journey, but plenty of people aren’t out of shape, with questionable knees, and did I mention out of shape?

There was the part of me that really wanted to give it a shot, I mean, there are worse ways to die, right? Thankfully, when asked, the ranger said there wasn’t any surface lava flow on this day. So, basically, we would just be taking a long-ass hike that might kill us.

I decided I didn’t want to die, my wife decided she didn’t want to die, so we just enjoyed the scenery on the way back up the crater.

Day 6 – I’m Not Scared Anymore

With safe adventure on our mind it was another day of seeing as much as possible. We finally got to see turtles at a truly weird site, the black sand beach of Panalu’u Black Sand Beach,  we didn’t get to see a rainbow at Rainbow Falls in Hilo, but we did get some yummy chocolate at Big Island Candies (Be sure to try the Macadamia Nut Shortbread).

It was also the day that I got over the fear of our rented “treehouse” sliding down the mountain, and we wouldn’t be killed by the Chupacabra who I feared was on vacation from his home in Mexico.

Day 7 – Our Anniversary Sunset at Hertz

Ah, our 7th wedding anniversary and it was “Goodbye, Big Island! Hello, Kauai!”

After a giant pancake and a couple of plane rides we found ourselves in Lihue on the island of Kauai. We were excited for a romantic dinner, a lovely sunset, and getting to our Kauai pad at a reasonable hour.

Little did we know that our experience at Hertz would be just like a Seinfeld episode where they were able to take our reservation, they just weren’t able to hold the reservation. There was that, and the fact that maybe if the one employee would have gotten off of Snapchat and Facebook on her cell phone, and did some work, we would have gotten our car in time to see the sunset at someplace more romantic than the Hertz parking lot.

Day 8 – Sites From the Sky

We had two goals on Day 8. One was to enjoy our helicopter ride, and the second was to see our first sunset at a romantic place on Kauai. One out of two wasn’t bad.

The helicopter ride was awesome and seeing things from the perspective of a helicopter is phenomenal. I had to keep reminding myself at times to stop taking pictures, put down the camera, and just enjoy the beauty.

This was also the day I learned I really like poke thanks to Pono Market, and shave ice (there is no “d” even though you really want to called it “shaved ice”) thanks to Hee Fat.

The helicopter ride filled our morning, wandering Kapaa filled our afternoon, and trying to get reservations at Bar Acuda kept me on my phone as they never answered the phone to take a dinner reservation. With some time to kill before the sunset we drove to the restaurant, I made the reservation for the wrong night, now couldn’t get through on the phone to change the reservation, and their email response mentioned they would get back to me in 1 to 4 days.

We ate somewhere else. I guess business is too good. Good for them.

Now it was time for a romantic sunset near our condo, at the St. Regis in Princeville. Another night on Kauai, another night of a non-sunset as it turns out the view from the St. Regis isn’t that great from fall through spring, with the sun setting behind the mountains. ????

We would have to try again for our sunset.

Day 9 – Finally a Sunset, and Great Pie.

We didn’t intend to spend the entire day on the south side of Kauai, but dammit, we wanted a sunset! Our initial goal was just to see Waimea Canyon, aka The Grand Canyon of the Pacific, grab some more shave ice, and maybe drive through the Tree Tunnel.

We took the drive up the long road to Waimea Canyon, but the tricky part is the waiting because one minute it might be rainy and cloudy, but sit tight for five or ten minutes and suddenly everything is gorgeously lit by the the sun.

According to The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook: Kauai Revealed (Ultimate Guidebooks), keep driving up Kokee Rd until it ain’t a road no more. You end up at Pu’u O Kila Lookout for the the best view outside of the canyon, which I admit was pretty awesome after the clouds cleared.

Back down the mountain it was time for Jo Jo’s shave ice, a tree tunnel, a blow hole, and the Kukui’ula Village Shopping Center for their Farmer’s Market with a snack of pie, soup, enchilada, and margarita.

Finally it was time for our awesome, Kauai sunset, complete with monk seals and surfers.

Whew, what an awesome day!

Day 10 – The Beach is Hard, Part II

After the busy-ness of Waimea Canyon we needed a day of rest. It was time to find a spot on the beach. We started at Anina Beach. It stretches for a couple of miles, the water is wonderful, but we found a lot of the beach a little too rocky for our liking. Bummer.

Let’s head to Hanalei!

Sure, parking can be a bitch, but our Guardian Angel of Parking Spots, Aunt Geraldine, found us a good location and it was time to vegetate for the day. Hint: Don’t forget to put sun tan lotion on the tops of your feet! Ouch!

Yea, every now and then a rain cloud would show up, but any shower passed quickly allowing us to watch a completely enjoyable family enjoy the water all day.

We had one more shave ice stop, Wishing Well, which kind of disappointed us as we heard good things about it, but any shave ice is better than no shave ice! Then it was time for dinner and a final cocktail before our departure the next day. Luckily we were treated to a saxophone player, because nothing screams “Hawaiian music” like a saxophone player.

Day 11/12 – Take Me Home, Friendly Skies

Our trip was coming to a close, but we had some time to kill before getting to the airport. What to do? My friend Catherine, in her list of things that are cool on Kauai, mentioned the Himalayan Academy. We sneaked our way onto a tour which was cool as it allowed us to see the Iraivan Temple being constructed, a marvel of craftsmanship. A very peaceful place, and fascinating!

One flight was late, there was sprinting through Honolulu airport like O.J. Simpson in a Hertz commercial, sick people in front of us who brought their own smorgasbord of sub sandwiches, chips other snacks to eat, and then proceeding to fart them all out for the last two hours on our flight from Honolulu to Chicago, an Uber driver who left us standing on the curb,  another Uber driver who paid her tolls with actual cash instead of having an iPass, and one really, happy dog to greet us as we walked through the door back home! Phew and pee-yew!

Put the Camera Down

Hawaii is a phenomenal place. If you’re going there I have one recommendation: Get your ass off the resort and visit, hike, relax, and experience. Lastly, this was our experience. It includes most of the things my wife and I did while on the Big Island and Kauai. Oh yea, I have another recommendation, sometimes put the camera down, and just let your mind create memories for your lifetime. There are images a picture can never recreate.

Watching the Sun Rise Together

Watching the Sun Rise Together

I caught a pair of doves the other morning, just sitting on the wires, watching the sun rise. Sure, they probably weren’t watching the sun rise, and just doing whatever it is that doves do together, but it was nice to think of them as a couple of lovebirds, enjoying the beauty of the start of a new day.