Monday, April 20, 2015

Malbec World Day

Did you know that this past Friday the 17th was Malbec World Day?

Neither did we until we saw a notification in GringoTree about a wine tasting event being held to celebrate this illustrious occasion. Having recently returned from Argentina where we consumed generous amounts of the country's signature wine, it seemed only appropriate that we should attend and show our support for such a worthy cause.

The event was taking place at Zahir 360, a beautiful new hotel that we had not previously visited.

We elected to participate in both the general wine tasting (these pics were taken at the end of the evening--there was much more selection earlier)

and a special tasting menu of different Malbecs paired with specific foods. What a treat! We sat down at a l-o-n-g table overflowing with wine glasses.

The chef first served a prosciutto roll stuffed with a soft cheese in a wine reduction sauce. The accompanying wine was from Norton, one of Argentina's largest and best known wineries. Next came a yummy mushroom risotto paired with our favorite Malbec of the night courtesy of Luigi Bosca. It was so special we bought a bottle to take home. We would have paid around $8US in Argentina instead of $26 but what the heck, we're not there anymore.

I got so caught up in the evening's festivities I forgot to take photos of all the courses but did remember this one, a smoked pork chop and figs paired with wine from Navarro Correas, an old and prestigious Mendoza winery.

After the final course of lomo fino (filet mignon) and a bold Malbec from Finca La Chamiza, we rejoined the general tasting before heading outside to take in a beautiful evening from the hotel's spacious terrace.

Cynthia and I talked about how none of this could have been possible in Cuenca when we first arrived. There were no new modern hotels, and there was little interest in fine wines and elevated cuisine. The popular assumption is that all of us new expats are driving this train, and nothing could be farther from the truth. At the wine event we, along with a couple from GringoTree, were the only foreigners present.

We expats happen to be lucky bystanders reaping the benefits of Cuenca's emerging middle class, driven mainly by locals who lived in the U.S. or Spain and have now returned home with a desire to enjoy the goods and services they were exposed to while abroad. There are more exciting places to go and things to do than ever before. For example, the Russian Ballet is performing here Thursday night.

Cynthia and I were happy to move to Cuenca five years ago and, honestly, this place is in so many important ways becoming an even better place to live.

PS. I just read an interesting article about how the latest research casts doubts on many of wine's reputed health benefits. What next, dark chocolate?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Buenos Aires

Ah, Buenos Aires. What a wonderful place to end our journey. I absolutely love this city! Here's a shot taken from the cruise ship.

Our visit there started off a little shaky though. Good friends had invited us to share a lovely apartment (high ceilings, lots of molding, wood floors) they had rented in a very nice area of town. Late afternoon on the first day water started pouring through the light fixture in the breakfast area. YIKES!!

We quickly grabbed every bucket and pot we could find. I rushed up to the roof the building and it was immediately evident that two big holding tanks were for some reason overflowing. We knocked on the doors of neighbors we haven't even met, asking them to please call anyone they knew who might help. Amazingly some guy showed up (no idea who he was) and stopped the leaking. There was no water upstairs and no hot water in the whole apartment but what a relief! A plumber arrived the next morning, corrected whatever the problem was, and disaster was averted.

Buenos Aires is so big that we decided our best strategy, since we were going to be there a week, was to explore one neighborhood (barrio) at a time. The first day a guide gave us a general overview. We started on the south side in La Boca, a rundown but colorful touristy area known for the tango.

We stopped for coffee in San Telmo, the best-known barrio for antiques, then drove through Puerto Madero, a formerly rundown riverfront area transformed into an upscale mecca.

Since we weren't in the market for antiques and can see modern architecture lots of places in the world this brief visit was sufficient.

Palermo SoHo is a terrific neighborhood to spend the day in. The shops had amazing European design

and we loved the restaurants, tree-lined streets, and cool architecture.

Teatro Colon is an amazing structure.

It was built in the late 19th century by wealthy Argentines who wanted to convince the bigwigs in Europe that BA could hang with them. And they succeeded because Buenos Aires is still known as the "Paris of South America." Check out the interior of this place.

Plaza de Mayo is home to many of BA's most important historical buildings.

It was so much fun to wander around and run into views like these.

Or this

A visit to the Recoleta cemetery is a must. What a wild place--literally a city for dead people!

We checked out the Japanese Gardens,

and several museums with modern art

fine art

and highly questionable "art."

We shopped in a mall that had us imagining we were back in Las Vegas!

And of course we went to a tango show. We had high expectations and were absolutely blown away.

Am I conveying the impression we enjoyed ourselves in Buenos Aires? We--had--a--blast!!

Let me also mention the food and drink. As opposed to Santiago, prices were quite reasonable here. Wines we pay $10 for in Cuenca were like $2.50-3.00US, so we continued to pay $10 and were opening some very nice Malbecs.

We ate at a highly recommended Argentine steakhouse. How could we not, right? Cynthia and I split the house specialty--800 grams (1 3/4 pounds) of bovine heaven. When the waiter presented it to us, he split it down the middle with the side of a spoon to demonstrate the tenderness. What?!?!? The bill, with wine and tip, was less than $60US. Try getting out for that price at Morton's or Ruth's Chris. Our only regret is that we didn't dine at several of these establishments.

So our once in a lifetime journey draws to a close with a tattered map of Buenos Aires.

I hope you've had fun tagging along, and that great adventures like this are in all of our futures!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Falkland Islands and Montevideo

We get up early again to observe our passage through Cape Horn, passing the imaginary boundary between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. We learn that we are among .005 percent of the world's population who have done this. Pretty cool.

Another sea day means looking at that damned daily schedule of activities once again, checking off a few things and then proceeding to do none of them. At this point the previously ignored LGBT (we're so naive we didn't even know what the initials stand for) and "Friends of Bill W." (we've been told this is an AA group) gatherings are starting to look more appealing. Except we'd be tossed immediately from both groups.

We opt for room service coffee, the gym, a late breakfast after the Death Row crowds have thinned out, then an afternoon of who knows what. We hunker down to the max that evening, ordering room service, enjoying our last bottle of wine from Casablanca Valley, skipping the magic show, and hoping for a big day in the Falkland Islands before heading north to Montevideo, Uruguay and Buenos Aires.

Blue skies--calm waters--YES, we're getting off the ship for our big outing in the Falklands! We'd pushed all our chips to the center of the table, Vegas style, because we wanted to get up close and personal with penguins and when planning the trip this last stop looked like the best opportunity. Except we didn't know that dicey weather often kept passengers from coming ashore.

And except we almost didn't get to do the excursion anyway. Holland America does a lot of things right, but getting folks off the boat here wasn't one of them. Our excursion was leaving at a specific time because we had a long drive each way to the area where the penguins live.

For those of you who have never been on a cruise before, there are two disembarkation options--either the ship docks directly or shuttle boats called tenders transport passengers back and forth. Port Stanley in the Falklands is a tender port. It took us forever to get on a tender (in fact we had to demand to board ahead of our turn because we were running out of time), then we discovered that the ride to shore took a full 25 minutes.

We rushed off the boat and learned our guide had already left with the rest of the group. We were crushed. Fortunately everybody knows everybody in a town of 2000, and a local pointed to a lady and told us he thought she still had room on her tour. We inquired and she said, yes, she was waiting for passengers in the same predicament as us, but if they weren't on the next tender she absolutely had to leave and we could take their spots. Fortunately for us they weren't (sorry, anonymous folks) and we were off to Volunteer's Point where three different penguin species reside, including the gorgeous King penguin.

The terrain of the Falklands is vast and austere. It is often extremely windy and no native trees grow there.

Veins of granite-like rock run throughout the islands.

After a short drive on a paved road we zigged, zagged, and bumped our way across this rugged land in 4X4's for about an hour and a half. Then right on the coast there we were in penguin land.

All three species of penguins peacefully coexist in their own rookeries. The small Gentoo's live in burrows.

Magellan penguins are about a foot and a half high.

Then there are the magnificent King penguins. They walk around like Snoopy in Charlie Brown cartoons.

Like the animals on the Galapagos Islands, these birds have no fear of humans so you can get quite close.

What a once-in-a-lifetime privilege it was for us to observe so many of them in their native environment instead of seeing a couple of sad specimens in a zoo somewhere. It's molting season for the Magellan's.

You might notice all of the King penguin brown chicks are kept in clusters in the middle of the rookery.

We felt particularly blessed when told the perfect weather we enjoyed basically never happens there. It was only fitting, then, that this amazing sunset ended a glorious day.

Let's not dwell on the last two sea days before we arrived in Montevideo, Uruguay. If you've read the other posts you know our routine--meals, workouts, hot tub, drinks, naps, maybe a little reading, shows. We're about ready to exit the boat.

Sadly, Montevideo doesn't really resonate with us. Nothing really wrong with the city--it has all the requisite colonial architecture, parks, and museums.

It somehow just seemed so vanilla. And it was damned expensive, at least food-wise. Cynthia, a friend, and I ordered two big beers and four sausages. The bill was $41US!! Ouch.

I'm happy we visited, though, so I could take this awesome photo at a museum there.

The next week and final post of this series on our journey--Buenos Aires!