In "We'll Always Have Paris" food critic Alexander Lobrano cites 25 "best" bistros, including Neva Cuisine where Mexican chef Beatrice Gonzalez serves contemporary dishes such as shrimp ravioli in ginger bouillon. Photo credit: Le Figaro
Right now, when it’s a sweltering 104 degrees and storm clouds are threatening to dump monsoon rains onto the tropical garden, my favorite vacation spot is the library sofa. In one hand, a chile-laced Mexican fruit cup, in the other a tantalizing stack of destination articles to read.
Here are some intriguing ideas for future travel:
For a long while I’ve dreamed of renting an apartment in Paris for a month, or maybe a year. Conde Nast’s Traveler’s “We’ll always have Paris: Why the city of love remains the city of food” (July, 2012, pp. 63-72) makes that dream even more seductive. Restaurant critic and long term Paris resident Alexander Lobrano picks 25 “best” bistros, some old and some brand new. To sample them all, well, I’d have to be there for at least two months.
What caught my attention: Neva Cuisine where Mexican chef Beatrice Gonzalez offers shrimp ravioli in ginger bouillon with red beets; for dessert, a gilded “sphere of Samana chocolate with preserved pineapple and spices.” For exceptional steak frites there’s Le Severo where the boeuf comes from acclaimed butcher Hugo Desnoyer and the frites are “crunchy, golden, piping hot.” And who could resist lime blossom honey from the hives on the roof of the Opera Garnier—but one has to be there in season, most likely on the day it goes on sale.
Now all I need is that apartment. Any ideas?
My desire to live in Paris, however temporarily, is fueled in part by a craving to experience my favorite city as a resident. A slower pace, the chance to get to know people in a neighborhood, not to mention unplanned encounters and quirky discoveries, is awfully alluring.
In this vein, last Sunday’s New York Times ran a provocative opinion piece which all self-proclaimed travel addicts should read. In “Reclaiming Travel,” Ilan Stavans and Joshua Ellison say that we’ve “deprived [travel of its] allegorical grandeur” by downsizing “epic journeys…to cruise ships and guided tours.”
“Modern tourism does not promise transformation but rather the possibility of leaving home and coming back without any significant change or challenge,” the authors write. “Whereas travel is about the unexpected, about giving oneself over to disorientation, tourism is safe, controlled and predetermined.” They conclude: “The kind of travel to which we aspire should tolerate uncertainty and discomfort…we need to permit ourselves to be clumsy, inexpert and even a bit lonely.“
That made me sit up and think about the places I’ve been. It’s fair to say that the happiest, most memorable moments have been the ones that were unplanned. I’m thinking, for example, about the night in Oaxaca when Susana Trilling chucked a lecture so we could go to a christening party for a friend’s 6-year old grandson. There was dancing under a glitter ball, shots of homemade mescal and raucous laughter as the party stretched into the wee hours. On the way home we stopped for late night tlayudas with other Oaxaquenos ending an evening out with grilled beef on enormous tortillas topped with chiles, cabbage and cilantro.
Cooking instructor Selin Rozanne and her husband, Can, prepare a sumptuous green lentil soup with spicy red pepper in their Istanbul kitchen.
On the other hand, cooking classes, especially those held in the cook’s home, often yield unexpected insights. The day I spent in Selin’s Istanbul kitchen led to conversations not only about delicious Turkish cuisine, but also about the foreign policy of a country that’s been at the crossroads of East and West for millennia. In a riad outside Essouira in Morocco, a trio of boisterous female cooks showed us how to belly dance while a Berber omelet was bubbling in a tagine on the stove. And in Andalucia, we had an impromptu lunch of grilled pork at an old house in an olive grove; workers, friends and relative showed up to cook and eat. Later our hosts—the young olive oil makers—drove us to Cordoba where we crisscrossed the city for hours looking for our hotel. We were lost, but we couldn’t stop laughing.
It’s not surprising that small tour companies are coming up with quickie classes for travelers who want to connect with locals. In “Click Here for an Offbeat Tour,” (The New York Times, July 6, 2012, p. 3), David Page writes about four new companies for “the package-tour averse.” I’m not sure about a New York dinner with an investment banker turned Bakhti yogi, but six hours spent cooking and eating with a family in Delhi, or a three-hour hookah and tea tour in Istanbul might be fun. Ditto for dinner with a Fijian king ($250 for six people.)
These short classes tap into the growing desire for “authentic” experiences—a trend which, interestingly, was also written about in last Sunday’s New York Times in “Don’t Indulge. Be Happy.” (July 6, 2012, Sunday Review, pp. 1 and 7). Studies show that we are happiest when we spend our money, not on ourselves but on others—but as Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, authors of the forthcoming Happy Money: The Science of Spending, explain: “A decade of research has demonstrated that if you insist on spending money on yourself, you should shift from buying stuff (TV’s and cars) to experiences (trips and special evenings out).”
So maybe we’ll be happiest if we give our money to that investment banker turned bakhti yogi….
Pokhara, Pashchimanchal, Nepal. Photo credit: afar.com
Afar, the alternative travel magazine, always covers offbeat trips. The July/August issue features articles such as “Trek Nepal’s Forbidden Valley,” in which Darrell Hartman recounts a $9,189 hike into the Nar Phu Valley, a remote “Himalayan region where Western travelers are comparatively few and far between” and where “the lifestyle of the inhabitants [is] much the same as [it] was centuries ago.” Hiking nearly to the off-limits border with Tibet, he “felt like a privileged guest in this isolated land of rock and wind, where the solitude was as intense as any I’ve ever felt.”
If solitude’s not your thing, but you want to go way off the grid, try “Tourist-Free Thailand,” in which Laurence Osborne chronicles a motorcycle trip through southern Thailand where a “low-level civil war” has been going on between Islamic radicals and the Thai government for nearly a decade. He writes, “There was an ease to being an anomaly here, because I was such an unexpected apparition.” Once he heard a “boom that could have been a bomb” but was unconcerned. “One adapts even to civil wars, provided they don’t prevent one from traveling enjoyable roads, discovering a deserted beach, or savoring a cold beer.”
I must confess that I found myself most drawn to “Insider’s Rome” by Maria Shollenbarger in the June 2012 issue of Travel & Leisure (pp. 86-96). Articles like this, which describe a handful of hotels, restaurants and shops in different neighborhoods, can give you ideas for your own trip without binding you into the relentless pace of a 10-day tour with people you don’t know.
A bedroom at the San Anselmo Hotel in Testaccio, Rome. Photo credit: Tablet Hotels
Without Shollenbarger’s advice, I might not have known, for instance, about the Hotel Anselmo in Testaccio, “neither new nor aggressively chic,” where “the garden is lush with orange trees and dotted with green iron tables,” and “Room 829 has limed parquet floors…” Or about Volpetti, a nearby food shop “where jams made by Trappist nuns are arranged like jewels above a selection of artichokes prepared in half a dozen local styles.” Or about Pasticceria Linari where one can drink “squeezed between students from the nearby music school and a tiny old gentleman in threadbare jacket…”
Such articles offer a framework for exploring a new city. As long as you don’t slavishly visit every recommended spot, you can wander to your heart’s content, leaving room for the unexpected encounter or discovery—or, as B (and Steinbeck) put it, for a vacilando, a leisurely walk with no real destination—yet knowing that you will have a roof over your head that night and most likely, something tasty to eat.
Now, about this fall’s trip to Bhutan….