NOLA Spotlight: New Orleans Museum of Art

NOLA Spotlight: New Orleans Museum of Art

People come to New Orleans for a lot of things: to eat, drink, party, and listen to music. One thing that’s overlooked, though, is that we have an amazing museum. The New Orleans Museum of Art  (NOMA) was founded in 1910 by Isaac Delgado and has over 40,000 works of art, covering 4,000 years of world art. That’s a lot of art!

I live here and it’s one of my favorite places to be. Especially nice to be surrounded by all of this beautiful art AND cranking air conditioning on a hot summer’s day. Bliss.

Wednesdays are the best because it’s free if you live here. However, be warned, it’s supposed to be a little more crowded on Wednesdays as a result. I spoke with Jacob (nice name!) who works here and he said the difference in a Tuesday versus a Wednesday is major—almost twice as many people one day from the next. And he said, be prepared for lots of little ones in matching camp shirts scooting their way through the museum on this day. Still, I’m here on a Wednesday and it’s not noticeably crowded to me. Just a fair amount of people looking around, but still very quiet. Someone just took a picture of me sitting here writing—I wonder if he thought I was a live installation?? Or maybe just strange…

There are three floors in the museum covering a variety of artists and genres and of course, there are special exhibits and events here all of the time. One of my favorite exhibits was Fernando Botero. He’s the Colombian artist who paints the very large people with a Magic Realism feel. I’m always surprised to see his work when I’m visiting other countries.

So, I can’t describe every room unless, you’d like a book-length post, so here are some of the highlights (for me, anyway). The first room I go to is right when you walk in–the Early Renaissance Art. I guess because I’ve been to Italy a few times and seen many of these works there, especially the Sienese masters, so I really like spending time in this room. Lots of gold and bold gem tones in this room. They were a flashy bunch.

I’m also obsessed with the Modern Art and Impressionism Room. Both super cozy. Joan Miro. Pablo Picasso. Claude Monet. Edgar Degas. Wassily Kandinsky. Amedeo Modigliani. Check, check, check. Very happy in these rooms.

My favorite piece of the day was this one below–Modigliani, Portrait of a Young Woman.
The second floor also contains furniture and objects d’art. I like to look at the beautiful objects people have had in their homes at one point. What it must have been like to live in a room with some of these things!

The museum itself is fairly expansive but its light wooden floors, clean lines, and white walls make focusing on the art easy. I could spend all day here.

             

The first floor has a very interesting exhibit–some regional focus here.

I really love the expressions and strength of David Bates‘ Saints (Triptych) below.

And found this John Water’s work (Rush) very intriguing…

Oh, before I forget. There’s also a gift shop that’s chock-filled with cool things to purchase. Calendars, jewelry, art books, and more. I don’t allow myself to go in there too often or it could be trouble. I know my own weaknesses…. The café, Cafe Noma, is a new addition here at the museum and is the perfect place to have a snack or a coffee or glass of wine. They have salads, paninis, and flatbread pizzas that are delish. It’s a big airy room with large windows and lots of light.

The New Orleans Museum of Art is located in the middle of City Park—a big beautiful green space in the middle of the city. There is also a sculpture and botanical garden. More on those in another post. Oh, and paddle boats and a small amusement park as well! So lots to do right in this little spot.

Some things people may not know?

  • Friday night, NOMA has music and fun events, so check the calendar if you’re around on a Friday.
  • Wednesdays are free for Louisiana residents! Just show your i.d. and you have open access to one of the coolest (figuratively and literally) places in New Orleans.

Here are the details. Come visit next time you’re in town!

Hours:

  • Tuesday-Thursday      10 am – 6 pm
  • Friday                         10 am-9 pm
  • Saturday                     10 am- 5 pm
  • Sunday                       11 am – 5 pm
  • Closed Monday

Admission:

$12 adults/$10 seniors/$6 children (6 and under are free)

 

One Collins Diboll Circle

New Orleans, LA 70124

Tel. 504.658.4100

@NOMA1910

24 Hours in Santa Fe

After I gave a paper at a conference in Albuquerque, I rented a car and set out for Santa Fe. Twenty Four hours in this town, I soon discovered, was nothing but a tease. Santa Fe was easy on the eyes with its earth-toned, stucco buildings and laid back, friendly people. And the food was crazy good. So here’s the run down on my 24 hours.

The town

Loads of color everywhere! The center of town warlike an artwork itself with streets laid out and adorned with beautiful, colorful things to look at on every corner. The market in the center of town had stalls with vibrant-colored rugs, pottery, and baskets.

Love these baskets.

There were also dried red peppers all over. Hanging as decoration or for use, these bundles of red peppers were sometimes three feet long. Peppers and chiles everywhere actually. There’s green chile ice cream, red pepper cookies, and really in any food you can imagine.

One of my first stops was the Loretto Chapel, which is a landmark of Santa Fe and though the outside is somewhat unassuming, the inside holds the real treasure.

A wooden spiral staircase, called the miraculous staircase, winds its way up to the second floor of the church. The Loretto Chapel was finished 1878 but once it was done, there was no way to access the choir twenty-two feet above. The story goes that carpenters couldn’t figure out how to build it, so the Sisters made a novena and then someone showed up on a donkey, looking for work. He built the staircase.

The art

I can’t tell you how much I adored the Georgia O’Keefe Museum. First of all, I’ve always loved her art, but seeing it in this intimate venue that felt both warm and open, was really special.

Georgia O’Keefe was a twentieth-century artist known for her large, bold flowers as well as her southwestern landscapes and dried, white bones set against desert-scapes.The collection at this museum is the largest permanent collection of O’Keefe’s in the world.

My favorite was this white flower against the red hill backdrop called (not surprisingly) Red Hills and White Flower.

 

The New Mexico Museum of Art is the oldest, state-run art museum in New Mexico. It’s in an adobe building and has works from the Taos and Santa Fe art colonies.

There was modern and contemporary art from New Mexico and the Southwest. Outside, lots of beautiful sculptures like this one.

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The landscape

That afternoon, I decided to drive north to try to see some pueblos, which was pretty adventurous of me since I’ve got zero sense of direction. but that’s why there’s GPS, right? Blue skies and open roads were a real lure and I was happy to set out.

I wish I had more time to explore but I drove around for about an hour and just enjoyed being out. Didn’t see any pueblos though, because when I tried to go along some windy desert road, my signal dropped and I got nervous. With that zero sense of direction problem, I had real fears that I might get lost on the sandy roads of the southwest and never be heard from again… So I turned back. But the drive was nice! Will have to take paper map and maybe a navigator person with me next time…

 

Sleeps and Eats

There were lots of places to stay, but I discovered El Paradero B and B and it was perfect. A small place with a handful of rooms, El Paradero is comfortable and pretty inside. While I didn’t spend a lot of time here, I felt right at home in the little library having a cup of tea. Breakfast was hearty and delicious. Chilequiles, black beans, and fresh fruit. Yum!

La Fonda on the Plaza is a beautiful hotel situated in the center of town. While I didn’t stay there, I had lunch there earlier that day and La Fonda took tacos to the next level.

 

The next day was a day to nerd out and so I spent hours in bookstores. Heaven, right? The first place I discovered was Dumont Books and Maps of the West, which is a place I could’ve spent the entire day–lots of old maps and books. So cozy.

 

There were tons of color and black and white maps of the west and books on the history of New Mexico–even one by my great, great grandfather, Benjamin Read! There was also a street named after our family there, so what this means is another trip for me to research all of that when I have more than 24 hours to spare.

The Collected Works Bookstore and Coffee House is an independent, locally owned bookstore that was small and bountiful at the same time. Big windows let in the day’s light and comfortable chairs were pretty inviting.

 

The morning I went, there was live music and so I got my coffee, a stack of books to choose from, and listened to the music.

I loved the warm and earthy feel of this city. The oranges, browns, yellows, and terracottas really spoke to me and had me feeling right at home. Maybe it has something to do with my ancestors living there and so perhaps I felt that pull as well, but there was something about that place–I’ll need to go back soon and stay longer than a day.

Adventures in Alaska

To be honest, I never really wanted an adventure in Alaska. Nor did I want to hang out in a state or any place that cold—I’m from New Orleans, after all. We wear shorts and flip flops in December and the second the temperature drops to 50, we break out the sweaters, corduroys, and boots. I may be worse than most; if I sit under a vent in a restaurant, I get chilly and have to move seats. So when my friend and her son invited my son and I with them on their trip to Alaska, I was a little hesitant. Mostly because of the cold. And the snow.

But then, you know, there’s my son, and like most parents, I’d do just about anything for him, even freeze my ass off in Alaska. Oh, I forgot to mention, we weren’t going in the summer, when it might be lovely and temperate and green—we were going in February, for Mardi Gras break. After some hesitation and attempts to persuade everyone to change the destination, I gave in and before I knew it, I was ordering fur lined boots and extra-insulated jackets for the trip. Lots of those hand warmer pouches—I think I brought about fifty. So did I freeze to death and spend a miserable week and a half in Alaska? Of course not, but you guessed that, I bet.

Sitting outside on my deck today, in 80 degree weather at the end of November, I’m writing this to tell you that I came nowhere close to freezing, only used four of those hand warmers, and am so incredibly glad I went to see a place I might never have gone if I weren’t pressured into doing so. Alaska is breathtaking, and I’m grateful my friend asked us to go.

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Though we divided our time between Fairbanks and Anchorage (didn’t get to see Denali Park, but I plan on going back—in the summer, of course), I was able to get a glimpse of some of the raw beauty and wilderness of this state that enjoys and even relishes a spot a bit off the grid from the Lower 48. The countryside is expansive, and once you drive out of the city—even just a few miles—you are smack in the middle of mountains, evergreens, and wildlife. Okay, you don’t even have to go out of town for the wildlife; a gigantic moose wandered right under my hotel window on the first night there.

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There is a serenity and quiet that comes with all of that snow, and while people who have snow on a regular basis know this, a southerner like me has never experienced it before. Something about it is very peaceful, and this totally distracted me from being cold–which surprisingly I wasn’t. Yes, I was bundled up, but really, it wasn’t so very cold somehow.

The first day, we snowmobiled out to a glacier. A guide took the four of us fairly far out–we were in the middle of nowhere really–to see this big beautiful glacier. My first time on a snowmobile and I’m not going to lie that I was any good at it…

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But when we rode up to the glacier, it was worth every mishap and near accident to see that sight. The sky was smokey white and gray and there was suddenly this blue like I’ve never imagined–and big crystalized chunks sitting on this untouched white snow. It was amazing.

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We were able to go inside of what felt like a blue cave, the walls smooth to the touch. Our guide was pretty sad as he told us that this might not be here in a few years, that he’d never seen such loss of glaciers as he had in recent years. They were disappearing at an alarming rate, he said.

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We spent a while walking around before heading back. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. So, something I learned is that driving a snowmobile is kind of hard–there’s balance involved and you have to use muscles to steer (it doesn’t just do everything for you, in other words). The ride back seemed way longer than the ride there, and by the time the road was in sight, I have to admit I was glad. It really was like work! The next day, we went on a dog sled ride. Again, we were in the middle of nowhere and as we stood wrapped in extra clothes, took off, feeling like we were the only people on the planet.

We stumbled upon the Iditarod one day too, which was fun, and also found a ice sculpture park. Hardly anyone was at the ice sculpture park–hardly anyone was anywhere at all, when I think of it. There were no lines at stores or crowds at restaurants. There was the sense of lots of room for everyone. The Alaskans we met were friendly and rugged–they gave the impression that they could handle just about anything that came their way.

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Taking a quick flight to Fairbanks, we went to Chena Hot Springs, and put swimsuits on to go sit in hot springs.  I know, I was surprised at myself. But only my head was cold and after a few drinks, everything amazingly warmed up! Apparently the thing to do here, besides jump in the hot springs, was to have a martini in an ice glass. Great idea because it keeps your drink cold, but a little tricky to hold….

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We went to some museums and the boys gave snowboarding a try. I attempted it for two seconds, but that was plenty. Snowboarding is much more difficult than it looks and when you fall, you realize how hard snow actually is. Our last day was a light one–we just got some giant frisbees and slid down a hill for hours. So much fun. Simple and good. Walk up the hill, slide down. Repeat.

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As I watched my son, I felt the sun strong on my face and took my jacket off for a while. I was getting warm, something I never imagined would happen. It really wasn’t as cold as I thought–even for a baby like me. By far, this was one of the most interesting places I’ve been and if it had been up to me, I wouldn’t have gone. I would’ve said, I’ll take my adventure in the tropics, thank you very much. But Alaska is a special place and my son absolutely loved it, which made it all the better for me.

Eurocup 2016–adventures in soccer….

We arrived in Marseille an hour later than expected because of a delayed train. The city was frenetic and lively with fans from both France and Germany roaming the streets. Our first, quick glimpse of Marseille was a fantastic one. It’s a beautiful port city that has an edginess to it I immediately liked. My son and I were so excited–we were going to the semi-final game of the Eurocup and it was finally here!

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While no trip of ours is ever without its own little hiccups or problems, this one in particular, was a doozy. First, let’s talk taxis. There were few available, as in maybe 2. The city of Marseille would host about 68,000 spectators in the Velodrome and about 80,000 in the fan zones. So, of course the taxis were busy. We managed to flag down a couple, but they told us ‘No’! I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was because they were only taking people to the stadium and we wanted to go check in at our apartment first. Who knows, but after several more failed attempts, we decided to brave the metro.

We did it! Took the right metro line, got off at the right stop, and found our way to our apartment (about a 3/4 mile trek). Really was kind of a miracle we didn’t screw it up. But we found our tiny studio apartment with a gorgeous view of the water. Sweet! But no time to linger because we had to get on to the game…

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Our apartment host kindly gave us a lift close to the stadium where we were to walk the rest of the way. The crowds were a blast–lots of singing and chanting. “Nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah nay, hey, hey, hey Giroud,” was heard over and over. Faces were painted red, white, and blue. Street performers were doing flips and dancing to music. It was so much fun. That is, until my son almost got knocked over by a cyclist and tripped, spraining his ankle. Disaster. He managed to limp to the stadium, where we went through security and found our seats.

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The Velodrome was a cool stadium with an open top, which quickly filled with people. We were stoked to be there. Good seats, nice people around us, infectious excitement, and anticipation for an awesome game!

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And it was indeed an awesome game. France scored two goals and each time, the crowd erupted in cheers. It was so loud in there! We stood up most of the game–everyone was too excited or nervous to sit. As the sun set, the intense heat disappeared and it felt cool for the first time that day. We settled in–me with a beer, my son with a Fanta–and watched as France won the match.

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After the game, we were still high from our victory until we stood on the streets, looking for a taxi and could find none. Not even 2. Not even 1. None. For hours. I have to admit, I got a little panicked because they boy could barely walk so it wasn’t like we could walk around till we found one. We went to a restaurant and ate, hoping that if we waited, more taxis would be available. The waitress called for us. Nothing. Three hours later and lots of help from French and German strangers alike trying to call or find a taxi for us, and finally we found one. Rolling in at 3:30 am, we were exhausted, and for the last challenge of the day, had to climb 6 flights of stairs to get to our apartment.

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We collapsed, both of us, but only for a couple hours of sleep because I had to catch the early train back to Montpellier to teach a class. What a day! It was intense–highs and lows… But when my son told me it was the best day ever, a real adventure, I was happy and said, yes, it definitely was.

A Travel Survival Guide for Picky Eaters

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If you’re a picky eater and you’ve traveled before, you probably know more tips than I’m about to give. (I hesitate to even use the word ‘picky’ because it carries a negative connotation. These eaters simply like what they like and that’s it! Yet, they’ve been given the label ‘picky.’ I’ll use the term particular, which is a little less loaded, but still….) For some people, it’s a matter of survival and only those who are truly particular eaters can really understand what I’m about to write. My son is a particular eater, so when we travel, we’ve learned how to navigate eating out so that it’s enjoyable but not stressful.

Traveling to a foreign country where there is a language difference can be a little daunting for many first time travelers, but for people with eating restrictions or specific foods they eat or don’t eat, it can’t be downright scary. However, with a little forethought, dining out in another country can be almost as easy as dining at home. Here are a few suggestions to eating while traveling abroad.

1) Do your homework

Do a little homework and look up the cuisine of the country you’re about to visit. See what types of food they eat there and how they’re prepared. This way, you’ll know what you’re in for. Going to France? Get ready for lots of cheese and butter. My son who doesn’t love cheese isn’t thrilled with that; however, learning that mussels and fries are practically a staple there, and he’s thrilled. If you are prepared for the food of the country you’re about to visit, you can make better choices. If I see ‘soupe l’oignon,’ you better believe I’ll stay far away because I don’t like onions, so onion soup is a big No for me.

2) Scout out restaurants

It’s easy these days to find the best restaurants in town. It’s also easy to look up the menus. In other countries, this is true as well. If you know what town you’re headed to, take a minute to look up some restaurants to see which ones look best to you. Utilize review sites like Yelp to find out what other people are saying about a restaurant or café you’re interested in.

3) Learn the language

I can’t emphasize this one enough. Learn a few words so that when you sit down at a restaurant, you can order your food exactly how you like it. “Senza pomodoro.” That was our catch phrase when eating our way through Italy. My son hates tomato sauce, so we ordered his pizza “without tomato” by saying “senza pomodoro.” It worked like a charm and they never got our order wrong. In fact, we were happy to find out that pizza without sauce is actually a regular menu item in Italy! Pizza Bianca (white pizza) has its own column on most pizza menus—perfect! We’re headed to France soon, so guess what we’ve learned? “Sans tomate.” Yup, it really makes a difference. Look up the words for the foods you don’t like or the way you like your food prepared. I’d suggest looking up “on the side.” That’s always a helpful phrase.

4) Bring snacks

We always carry snacks with us whenever we travel. Sometimes we bring entire meals like sandwiches and chips for international flights when you can pretty much guarantee that a particular eater is not going to like the two choices of airplane meals they serve. I pack all kinds of snacks for the plane or just walking around town because you may not find a place that has food you like. Be prepared—that’s always best.

5) Eat before you eat

I know this sounds counterintuitive, but if you’re going to a restaurant with a group or going to a fixed meal where there are limited options, eat something before you go. There’s nothing more miserable than sitting at a table starving but there not being one thing you can eat. And to those people who would say, “Just eat it,” the particular eater would say, “Hell no. I’ll wait.” So in order to not be miserable at a meal like this where you may not be able to order food the way you like it, have a small snack just before you head to the restaurant—just enough so that you won’t be hungry if there isn’t a single thing you like but not so much that you can eat if there are things you do like.

6) Consider trying something new

Every country has a unique cuisine that may have foods you’d be surprised you like. This is not an urge to ‘try it, you might like it,’ which I know particular eaters have heard their entire lives. No, that’s pushy and I wouldn’t say it. Only, I know I am likely to try something else in another place versus home just because when I travel, everything is different. I’m different. I’m more adventurous, outgoing, less stressed and uptight. So, I’m more likely to say, “sure, I’ll give that a whirl,” than when I’m here. My son, who as I’ve mentioned doesn’t eat most cheese or any tomato products, tried escargot in France (yes, he knew what it was, and no I did not try to trick him) and he absolutely loved it. At home, he is more tentative, perhaps because he knows there are lots of other alternatives; abroad, it’s a little different. Anyway, it was a good experience and he still talks about those escargot to this day.

Traveling abroad is one of the most amazing things you’ll ever do, and with a little forethought can be one of the most delicious ones as well. Eating in a foreign place doesn’t have to be intimidating, if you take some time to be prepared. Hope your next trip is a great one and bon apetit!

Bologna–Italy’s Best Kept Secret!

With the exceptions of the Piemonte and Molise regions, and Sardinia, I’ve been to cities and towns in just about every other region of Italy. From the top of the boot to the bottom, including the islands of Sicily and Elba, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in this country. After over a dozen summers of traveling there, I can honestly say that one of my favorite places is perhaps its best-kept secret. Bologna.

People often bypass Bologna or at most, stop by for an hour on their way to Venice or some other better-known city. And to be honest, I did the same thing for a long time. It wasn’t until a friend of mine said she thought it would be a cool city to visit that it ever appeared on my radar.

Why don’t more people go there? Well, there are no major monuments there for one. When people travel to Italy, they go for the canals and gondolas in Venice, the Coliseum in Rome, the medieval towns of Tuscany, or the Leaning Tower in Pisa. People love to see the landmarks they associate with a place. I get that.

In Bologna, there are… well, there are porticos.

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Lots of them.

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There are 40 kilometers of porticos in Bologna. These beautiful archways are the defining architectural detail in this city. Of course there are historic landmarks as well, but none that people are clamoring to see. Which helps Bologna stay clear of hoards of tourists and lines of buses bringing them in. And which makes it a perfect place for people who just want to experience a place without all of the hoopla we have to deal with in those more famous cities.

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Bologna’s other claim to fame is that it contains the oldest university in Europe, the University di Bologna, which was founded in 1088. Although at first glance, the university doesn’t seem to dominate the town like some colleges here in the U.S. do, its presence is definitely felt. There’s a cool energy to the town and a young demographic that consists of both college-aged students and people from other regions and countries.

The city reflects this demographic in things like street art and happenings. The streets are lively in the evening and people are out for a stroll or a glass of wine until late. There are often exhibits or performances going in in town as well.

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There are lots of cultural events throughout the year. One of my favorite is the summer film festival, Cinema Ritrovato. This happens at the end of June. It’s a festival of old films, most of them shown in the big square, Piazza Maggiore, but there are small screenings other places and lectures on film too.

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Chairs are set up and when it turns dark, you grab your beer and a snack and settle in for the best free film you’ve ever seen. Surrounded by the lovely old buildings in the square, watching the movie on the big screen, it’s really an incredible experience.

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Last time we were there, my son and I saw Shot in the Dark with Peter Sellers. Awesome. At one point, he looked over and said, “This is one of the highlights of the trip.” There’s really nothing like it. Hearing people speaking in Italian all around you, chairs and the ground filled with moviegoers out to have a good time–bliss. One year, I saw Bernardo Bertlolluci make an appearance. Talk about a highlight.

I know lots of people say certain places are great to just wander, but this one truly is. It felt like a place where real people lived, not a staged city shaped for tourists, which is how some places feel to me. I don’t remember seeing any Hop-and-Go buses clogging the streets of the city or kiosks selling t-shirts every few feet on the main thoroughfares. No, Bologna is more understated, which makes it so special. There’s still plenty to do here–museums, shops, events, etc. But wandering around is pretty wonderful in itself. Oh and I’ve saved the best for last.

The food.

I’ve eaten my way through much of Italy and while you almost can’t get a bad meal anywhere in the entire country, the food in Bologna really stood apart for me. Located in the Emilia-Romagna region, this city offers one delicious meal after another. The Quadrilatero area of Bologna is behind Piazza Maggiore and if you go in the morning, you’ll see open markets with fruit and vegetables stands, as well as bins of fish. It’s an experience in itself, and if you’re staying in an apartment, is the perfect place to stop in and get some food to stock the pantry.

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There are salumerias and formaggerias that sell anything you could ever want. Delicious mortadella and pecorino. Braesola is a favorite in my family. However you might imagine the perfect salami to taste, you will get it here. You could get some snacks from any shop on this street and find yourself a cozy spot to picnic and watch the people go by. The quality of the food at the markets and delis here was impeccable.

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We stopped at one little restaurant and ordered a plate of meat, cheese, and veggies, which came with a basket of breads and crackers, and we were both in heaven. Didn’t need anything more.

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Well, just because we didn’t need anything, doesn’t mean we didn’t get anything, right? There were these little pastries that existed to be slathered with Nutella, so we made ourselves try them. Yum.

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One restaurant was better than the next. The service in each restaurant was wonderful and the food was amazing. This city is known for its pasta Bolognese, which is in very simple terms, pasta with meat sauce (in reality, it’s a very complex dish that takes hours to cook). While the dish varied a little from one place to another, one seemed better than the next to me.

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I really feel that the meals I had in Bologna were some of the best I’ve ever had in all of Italy. I’m not exactly sure why, but it is. I believe the quality of the ingredients that come from the rich Emilia-Romagna combined with the cuisine of the region and the care with which the Bolognese cook and serve a meal really make for memorable food. The gelato was even better here than anyplace else, if that’s even possible.

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If you want a place with landmarks, museums, and major places of interest, this city may not be for you. I took some friends there on their first visit to Italy and they weren’t super impressed. But if it’s your second or third visit to Italy and you’ve done the big name places–Milan, Rome, Venice, Florence–I’d recommend spending a few days in Bologna. It’s got a personality all its own and the best food I’ve had in Italy to date. So go to Bologna where you can wander, eat, and simply be.

Jazz Fest 2016 aka Flood Fest

It’s floodin’ down in Nola, all the telephone lines are down… Jazz Fest 2016 was a wet one. We didn’t hear a lot of music, but at least we got to eat. We set out on Saturday for the fest, prepared for rain but not ready for a flood. However, thirty minutes in, raindrops started falling. Umbrellas up, ponchos on, pants tucked in, the adventure began. Our first stop was the Cracklin’s booth, or Chicharrones (cracklin’s) as we say in California. These are by far the best we’ve tasted—big chunks of deep fried pork skin served hot in a brown paper bag. These are the one of the things we came for. My cousin, Lisa, smuggled in flour tortillas to make a chicharron soft taco. Standing to the side, and with a few onlookers, she spread the chicharrones on the tortilla, hit it with some hot sauce, and was a happy girl, and who cares about the damn rain now.

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Next stop, fried green tomatoes with remoulade. Huddling under umbrellas, we set the crispy, breaded tomatoes and tangy sauce down on a wet table and ate them with our fingers.

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We went to the Gospel tent to hear some music and escape the rain for a bit, but before long, decided to venture out for more. The Crawfish Monica was delicious as always, a pasta dish with creamy, rich sauce, speckled with spicy crawfish. For dessert, white chocolate bread pudding that made eyes roll back in our heads. But at that point, the rain was no longer just coming down, it was pouring. And flooding. We stood under a tent with hundreds of our fest-friends, and watched as the water rose, over our shoes and then up to our ankles.

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Of course, like anyone else from New Orleans, that didn’t stop us from eating the food we had with us, but it did slow us down from getting more for a while. When the rain slowed down and we finally came out like a bunch of wet rats, we moved to the stage where Stevie Wonder was set to play, only to learn that the Jazz Fest was cancelled. No music for us. We waded through knee deep water to leave, feet sore and waterlogged, but not as upset as most because it was a blast and we never laughed so hard. We ended up at a local dive, Twelve Mile Limit, and with a table filled with beer and more food (the pork sliders are to die for), we had us a good old time, Jazz Fest or not.

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More to Pisa than the Tower!

I’ve been to Pisa about a dozen times. Over the years, I’ve taken students with my study abroad program, as well as family, and friends to Pisa because it’s a place of interest and often associated with Italy itself. When people think of Italy, Rome comes to mind first, then perhaps Venice, and most likely, Pisa next. And associating images with places is natural. The Coliseum represents Rome, gondolas, Venice, and the Leaning Tower, Pisa.

Often, however, these places become an item on a punch list. Go there, see it, snap a pic, and leave. And while this is the way we travel sometimes—to see the most possible in the time we have, I’ve learned to slow it down a little and have a look around. What I’ve observed, especially in Pisa, is that people get off of the bus, push through the gates of the Piazza dei Miracoli and head straight for the tower. Swarms of people take pictures in front of the leaning tower, arm out, as if holding it up. I get it—it’s iconic. And yes, I’ve done it too at one time. It’s fun and funny and our friends and family at home love to see these pics of us. But there’s more to Pisa than the tower!

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One of my favorite things to do in Pisa is to spend time in the other buildings. The cathedral, for instance, is one of Italy’s most beautiful, I believe, and one often missed because the Tower completely overshadows everything in this Piazza. Once people take a picture by the Tower and the tour to walk up and around it, they do a little shopping at the booths that line one side of the square and leave. Wait, you’re missing it! I want to tell them as I sit on the lush grass outside. I only discovered the Cathedral, Baptistery, and Cemetery myself, after taking students on a tour there. Then, after the first year, I opted out of the tower and hung out in these other places while they explored and took pics.

The Cathedral

Besides being a cool sanctuary on hot summer days, the Cathedral is really breathtaking. I’ve seen a lot of churches and cathedrals in Italy, and this one with its Romanesque architecture is most definitely high on the list, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not overwhelmingly large, so it feels real, accessible. Moorish-inspired arches line the sides of the cathedral, and there are more arches as you walk toward the altar. Black and white striped marble—characteristic of the Tuscan region architecture—can be found on high columns. A wooden roof with concentric square carvings is a recent addition, after a fire there, warms the space.

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The Cathedral was started in 1093 by Buscheto (who is buried by the last arch in the cathedral). A fire in 1595 brought interesting restorations, so that some of the art work is from the original time period while other work is in the style of the Renaissance artists. An interesting mix. I really love the apse, which is of Christ Pancrator, a 13th century mosaic completed by Cimabue.

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The Baptistery

Once you’ve spent some time in the Cathedral, you should wander over to the Baptistery. Started in 1152 and completed in 1363, it is the largest baptistery in Italy and is a good example of the transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic style. It is simple in design but what makes it unique is the acoustics. The interior is octagonal and has a font in the center. Designed with a cupola at the top by Nicola Pisano, the baptistery is the pitch perfect place for music or singing, a resonating chamber of sorts. Check it out here.

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The Cemetery

The cemetery, or Camposanto Monumentale, contains many blind arches and three chapels. It was built with soil brought back from the Crusades to Golgotha. There are sarcophagi throughout the building, some of the sculpted monuments on the floors are roped off but many can be easily seen up close. Several frescoes remain, and one of the most interesting is the Triumph of Death. A bombing and subsequent fire by Allied forces in 1944 destroyed much of the wood and some of the artwork in the Camposanto, but it was later restored to a degree. It’s a very peaceful place, and worth spending some time there.

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The grounds

Sitting outside on the grass, looking around the Piazza, especially further back from the Tower, is a nice way to take a break from the hustle and bustle the Tower brings. Also, wandering the streets that lead away from the Piazza is interesting as well. And I’ve only really talked about the Piazza and its immediate surroundings. The rest of Pisa is worth exploring as well. The University of Pisa, the 10th oldest university in Italy, is here and definitely a place to check out. There are also events going on in this city that are interesting and make it a fun place to spend more than just an hour or two than are generally spent. I’d definitely recommend planning several hours when visiting Pisa. If you want to go in the Tower, there may be a waiting list, so you’ll need to plan for that. More importantly, try to spend time in the places around the Tower—the Cathedral, Baptistery, and Cemetery. They’re really beautiful and unique places that you’ll be hard pressed to find elsewhere.

Panama City Fish Market

Mercado De Mariscos (Panama City Fish Market) has every kind of seafood from spiny lobsters and tentacled octopus to giant shrimp to seafood mix for ceviche. As you can imagine, the smell of fish is strong inside and the floors are slick with water that’s constantly being sprayed to clean the area. Upstairs, there’s a restaurant that overlooks the market below where you can get fried fish or ceviche for a reasonable price.

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Many people who go to Panama City never stop by the fish market, which I think is one of the coolest things there. And maybe it’s ok, when I think about it, because floods of tourists stopping in would change it from what it is, and that’s a local’s spot. Here, locals and cooks from nearby restaurants stop in to get something to eat or buy something to make for the evening.

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If you’re not there to buy fish to take home for dinner, but just want to snack, outside is where it’s at. Once you walk outside the market, you’ll find a line of vendors in stalls selling all kind of deliciousness.

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Outfitted with a small grill or fryer in the back, each stall offers a pretty good menu for such a small space. Lining the front of the stall are rows of containers that have ceviche. Large plastic containers deep in crushed ice, these have a variety of ceviche—some loaded with onions and in a creamy sauce, other with just shrimp and fish in a sharp vinegar marinade. As you walk by, you’ll see some ceviche that looks alike, but really they are all different and delicious. It all depends on what you like.

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The best part is how inexpensive it is, so you can really taste several and not break the bank. For $1, you get a small styrofoam cup of ceviche and a pack of saltine crackers. For another $1, a draft beer. You can eat and drink as much as you want.

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And the view—not so bad. The water and old town, Casco Viejo, on one side or the city on the other. Hang out, people watch, enjoy the music and liveliness of the place, and you’ve got yourself a perfect morning in Panama.

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Five Reasons to Visit Panama

Central America’s Panama has gained a lot of attention recently as travelers begin to explore Central and South America more and more. And if your’e traveling from the U.S., it’s a wonderful place to go, either for an extended weekend or longer. I recently went to Panama City and really loved it. There are a lot of reasons to go to Panama, but my top five reasons to visit Panama are:

1)  It’s easy

Now that Copa Airlines has direct flights from New Orleans to Panama City, it’s sooo easy! You leave early in the morning and get there by 10:30 on a direct flight. Bliss! It’s almost easier than going some places in the U.S. You get yourself to the airport at the crack, take a little nap on the plane, and bam, you’re there in enough time to have the entire day to explore. It doesn’t hurt that the coffee is ah-mazing there so after a quick cab ride from the airport to the center of town, grab a cappuccino and a sit, and enjoy the day.

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Casco Viejo, Panama City

Another thing that makes Panama easy is that they use the U.S. dollar, so no money exchange necessary. Sweet. They are also only an hour’s time difference from New Orleans, and after many trips to Europe, no jet lag is very much appreciated. No more lost first day because jet lag is dragging you down. Adaptors? Don’t need ’em. You can plug your hair dryer or laptop into the outlet just like you do in the U.S.

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Casco Viejo, Panama City

The city is divided into two parts–the old and new. I only breezed through the new part, preferring the old town, or Casco Viejo, much better. This part of town is cool–a mix of worn, lived-in buildings with new, tastefully done places coming up. The streets are lively with people and sounds–never a dull moment there.

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Street art, Panama City

2)  Culture and History

One of the main things Panama is known for is the Panama Canal. You can easily go check it out within the course of the day. You can visit the Miraflores Visitor Center and see how the canal operates. There’s a museum and viewing platforms there.

There are many indigenous people in Panama, and while most live in communities outside of the city, some are also there showing and selling their art work, particularly the Guna and their colorful, hand-crafted molas.

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Molas

3)  Food and Drink

The food and drink are great there and if you’re frugal, you can find cheap, tasty treats all over. Mojitos are a must. Lots of places make them with fresh fruit mixed into them, like watermelon or mango. After walking around in the heat, it’s the perfect drink to have.

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Mojito

If you make your way to the fish market (follow your nose!), you can eat your fill of ceviche for next to nothing. They serve a variety of ceviche in small styrofoam cups for $1 a cup. You get a cup with ceviche piled high like a snowball and a pack of saltines for your money. A beer is another $1. A feast for very little money. Plus, the place is lively–there are always lots of people around and music constantly playing.

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Ceviche, Panama Fish Market

Ok, let’s talk coffee. I come from New Orleans where we have pretty great coffee. And I’ve had delicious coffee in other countries, but Panama is definitely up there in my top three. The coffee here is robust and flavorful, and I can’t even tell you how many I’d drink in one day (and yes, had trouble sleeping for sure).

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Cappuccino, Unido Cafe

One of my favorite spots to get a coffee was at the Unido Cafe, in the gorgeous  American Trade Hotel. Sitting in the cafe, sipping my iced latte, I was pretty happy to just be in that lovely space. Coffee here in the morning, jazz and cocktails in the evening–you could spend your entire day in this hotel and never want to leave.

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American Trade Hotel, Unido Cafe

4) Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro is a cluster of islands that are easy to get to from Panama City’s Albrook airport. For around a hundred dollars and a fifty minute flight, you can zip over to some of the most untouched islands I’ve seen. We flew into Colon and stayed there. From that spot, you can take boats to any of the smaller islands nearby. The boat rides are a blast. The town of Colon was an old shanty town and definitely has that island vibe and friendliness you’d expect.

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Colon, Bocas del Toro

It was fun to walk the streets in the evening, even though it rained while we were there. Still, there were kids playing soccer in the streets and locals and tourists alike were just hanging out and getting a beer or coming in from a day of surfing.

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Colon, Bocas del Toro

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Colon, Bocas del Toro

One morning, we took a boat ride to Islas Zapatillas, two uninhabited islands that are part of the Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park. You pay someone to take you there (it was about $30/person) and they bring you past different areas (to see dolphins, starfish, etc) and then to Zapatillas, where you can hang out for a few hours. You’ll need to bring your own supplies because there are only a few people there who monitor the island and there’s nothing for sale there like snacks or drinking water.

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Zapatillas Island

But as you can see, it was like paradise there. The water was blue-green and clear, and just the right temperature to swim and forget about anything else but that moment. It was like instant relaxation the minute I got there. There were only a few of us who came on the boat plus some others from another boat, which made for only about twenty in total. We basically had the island to ourselves. Heaven.

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Zapatillas Island

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Zapatillas Island

5) It’s a hub

You’d be surprised to find how many places you can fly to directly from Panama City–even to Europe! You can also get to Cuba on a short flight, which is still a little difficult to navigate from the U.S., even with the recent changes taking place.

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Tocumen Airport

Here’s a partial list of nonstop flights from Panama (PTY) with the airlines and the approximate flight time:

Amsterdam (KLM 10 hours)
Aruba (COPA 2 hours)
Atlanta (Delta 4 hours)
Bogota (COPA 1 1/2 hours)
Buenos Aires (COPA 7 hours)
Dallas (American 5 hours)
Frankfurt (Lufthansa 11 hours)
Guadalajara (COPA 4 1/2 hours)
Havana (COPA 2 1/2 hours)
Lisbon (TAP 9 1/2 hours)
Los Angeles (COPA 7 hours)
Montego Bay (COPA 2 hours)
New Orleans (COPA 4 hours)
Paris (Air France 10 hours)
Punta Cana (COPA 2 1/2 hours)
Quito (COPA 2 hours)
Santiago (COPA 6 1/2 hours)
Toronto (COPA 5 1/2 hours)
Washington DC (COPA 5 hours)

There are lots of other reasons to go and many more things to do than I’ve listed here. I didn’t get to spend as much time as I’d like when I went, but I hear David and Boquete are cool places to go for a different experience than the beaches. It’s really a beautiful place, that offers the modern and the old, the beaches and the rainforests, the coffee and…the coffee. Now that’s it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump away, there’s no reason not to go!

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Panama City