Travel & Adventure

Practical matters: passports

Last week I started the passport renewal process. The good news: If you’re a US citizen you only have to do this every ten years. The bad: 2018 is the year of delays and higher fees.

First, the delays. If you’ve been putting off renewing or applying for a passport, get on it now. For a variety of reasons 2018 is a peak year for renewals, and the State Department has been warning that processing times will be longer than normal. If you see a trip on your horizon, don’t wait and suffer undue stress or pay fees for expedited service. And, if you’re thinking, “I’ve still got a few months before mine expires,” remember that to enter another country your passport must be valid for at least three months after the date you plan to leave the country. You don’t want to learn that at the tail end of a long, overnight flight.

Second, US passports now cost $10 more for first-time applicants. That’s not a lot of money in the scheme of things, but ten bucks is ten bucks. This means you’ll pay $110 for a passport or $140 for a passport and passport card. I sprung for the passport card because it’s REAL ID compliant; I can use it for domestic air travel, and put off updating my driver’s license to the REAL ID version. Truth be told, I’d probably spend twice the fee to avoid visiting my local driver’s license office.

To learn more about applying for or renewing a passport visit the State Department’s web site. It’s a genuinely helpful site that simplifies navigating a sometimes-confusing process. And it can point you to local events and offices where first-time applicants can start the process.

Travel & Adventure

Travel’s missing ingredient

Yelp, TripAdvisor, Instagram, Google Street view and countless other always-available web sites and services have drained travel of a critical ingredient: Mystery.

How often do most of us land in a new location already knowing what we want to see, do, eat and drink? Moreover, we have strong expectations of what those experiences should be, based on a wealth of information that’s out there. In extreme cases, unrealistic expectations can lead to transient mental disorders.

I love the benefits that come with being a connected traveler. But a recent series of articles from AFAR about traveling unplugged reminded me of travel before smartphones and WiFi were ubiquitous. Traveling unplugged required flexibility and curiosity, and lacked the manic need to document every move on social media. When Beth and I traveled to Ireland many years ago we had a rental car waiting, no plans, and only a map to guide us.

We found places to stay by asking locals for advice. Over two weeks we encountered many of the same travelers again and again, so we would pause and exchange tips about places to see and things to do. The memories that have stuck with us sprang from the mystery of not knowing (sometimes literally) what we would find around the next corner. Sometimes those were dead ends, which weren’t disappointments as much as suggestions to go elsewhere.

Looking beyond those mysteries made that trip, and others, richer in a way that travel today isn’t.

Travel & Adventure

Food Matters: Paris

One of the pleasures of travel is finding good, local food. And one of my favorite cities for eating is Paris, thanks to an exploding culture of creative cooking that offers more than the sauce-heavy dishes that have long characterized French cuisine. You can spend a fortune dining there, but you don’t have to mortgage your home to enjoy a good meal. The places I love range from inexpensive to slightly-more-than-I’d-probably-spend-at-home, but every one is a good value.
  • La Table d’Aki is where Beth and I had one of our most memorable meals. Every dish–and they only serve seafood–is extraordinarily creative, and the wine list is simple and excellent. Two people, Chef Akihiro and an assistant, do everything from prep to cooking to wiping down the tables. Seating is very limited and reservations are essential. (7th arrondissement)
  • La Mascotte is a Montmartre fixture. Housed in a former hotel where Edith Piaf once lived, they serve a dizzying array of seafood. Here’s my advice: Start with a very good glass of champagne then go straight to les huitres (oysters), which are available from multiple regions and are presented by source and size. Reservations are strongly recommended. (18th)
  • Holybelly has the perfect breakfast, the Savoury Stack: Pancakes and bacon, topped with eggs over easy, served with home made Bourbon syrup. Oh, and their coffee…. (10th)
  • Le Severo is a serious steakhouse owned by a former butcher who has a keen eye for quality beef. We don’t spend a lot of time in the 14th arrondissement, but the trip to this small monument to steak is worth the trip. Trust the owner’s wine recommendations–they have an excellent list at reasonable prices. (14th)
  • Seb’on has an incredible reputation, and it’s only a matter of time before a Michelin star is bestowed on it. The creative menu changes nightly. The food is stellar and a good value to boot. Reserve a table well in advance. (18th)
  • Who travels to Paris to eat fried chicken? Me, that’s who. Ellsworth serves a typical Parisian lunch (entrée, plat, dessert–pick two or three) or you can dine on small plates in the evening. Their out-of-this-world fried chicken is available at either meal. If you skip the chicken (and you shouldn’t), there are plenty of other creative dishes on offer. (1st)
  • You’d never expect to find Babalou tucked away near one of Paris’s biggest tourist attractions, yet there it is around the corner from Sacre Coeur. They serve pasta, but the main draw is pizza with perfectly charred crust. Yes, it’s a pizza joint, but make reservations if you don’t want to be turned away at dinner. (18th)
  • Cave La Bourgogne offers French comfort food in a friendly setting. If you’re up for steak tartare, escargots, sardines in butter or a cassoulet, you can’t go wrong here. Bonus: It’s located on the wonderful Rue Mouffetard, which is perfect for people-watching. (5th)
  • Soul Kitchen is our first choice for a simple breakfast, though the vegetarian lunch menu always looks good. It’s a crowded spot that always seems to be full of moms who have just dropped their kids at school. I always get the same thing: A croissant with jam, fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, and a latté. I never tire of this combination. (18th)
  • On a warm, sunny day find your way to Paname Brewing Company, on the Quai de la Loire, order a beer and some street food, and find a table on the deck overlooking the water. “Fine Parisian beers” used to be an oxymoron, but no more. This is a fun, friendly spot that serves excellent beer and food. (19th)

Pro tip for Paris dining: Reservations are the rule, and it’s good manners to make them and show up exactly on time. That said, many restaurants will do their best to create space for you if you show up and politely request a table. Starting with “Bonjour” or “Bonsoir” will go a long way toward breaking the ice.

Travel & Adventure

Turin, Eataly, and catching a ride with a stranger

I had only a vague idea where we were, which wasn’t comforting since we were sitting in the backseat of a stranger’s car. After getting in the car 30 minutes earlier we had gone in what seemed like the right direction, but with all the u-turns and backtracking I was a bit nervous. Not to mention that our apartment was only a 10 minute drive. While we chatted with the driver I surreptitiously checked the map on my phone.

Our strange “cab” ride started at Eataly. You may have visited one of their five outposts in the US. Earlier this year I walked into the one in Chicago. It was…okay. Maybe that’s a contrarian opinion because lots of people swoon over the place, but I’m happy to stand by it.

Eataly in Turin was completely different.

It’s the original, and is next door to 8 Gallery, a former FIAT factory that’s home to hotels, restaurants and a shopping mall. 8 Gallery has a rooftop test track that was a minor setting in the original Italian Job.

After visiting the gallery and walking a lap of the track, we were ready for lunch and went next door to Eataly where we were greeted by a woman sampling sparkling wines. She wanted our opinion about two wines–which did we prefer? We agreed that we liked a more complex, bolder wine she had offered us. “Bene!” she cried, and let us know that we were absolutely right. She might be selling two different wines, but only one was worth our time and she wanted us to know the difference.

Okay, if you haven’t experienced Eataly, it’s important to know that each store includes several restaurants that serve specific types of food–fish, meat, pasta, pizza, and so on. We opted for pasta. In my case, a giant bowl of spaghetti al pomodoro with buffalo mozzarella. Everything, including the cheese, had been produced within a hundred feet of our table. I washed it down with a bottle of acqua frizzante and a glass of red wine.

This was our first of two trips to Eataly that day. After lunch we visited the Museo dell’Automobile and saw a biennial exhibition that had just opened. Then we walked back to Eataly to shop and have a drink.

Our second stop was much longer. We bought risotto and olive oil for the local charity drive, lavender dog biscuits for Ben and Rox, and other odds and ends. We paused at an enoteca (wine bar) while making plans for that evening.

It was time to get a cab.

We exited Eataly and were met by a young, well-dressed guy who asked, “Can I give you a ride anywhere in the city?” He pointed us toward a line of new Renault SUVs, and explained that Renault and Eataly had teamed up for a promotion. The ride was on them.

Ten euros (the cost of cab fare) is ten euros, so we hopped in.

And so a few minutes later I was consulting online maps and looking for landmarks I recognized. “This is my first time doing this job,” said our driver. “I know your address. My girlfriend lives two blocks from there.”

I wondered about that, but after one more u-turn I caught a glimpse of our street off to the right. Our driver turned left.

I was about to point out the missed turn when our driver said, “Ah, these streets are so confusing. I need to go around the block.” Two minutes later we were parked in front of our apartment, and I was signing documents that freed me of any obligations if the driver killed a pedestrian or wrecked his shiny new vehicle. We turned toward our apartment and he shouted, “Wait!” and opened the boot of the car. “I have a present.”

He handed us a small bag from Eataly, filled with food samples. “This is my last one,” he said, “and I’m nearly done for the night.”

We said our goodbyes, and before driving off he said with a smirk, “Maybe I can go to my girlfriend’s and get a quick kiss!”

Turin restaurant notes: While in Turin we stayed in a quiet section of town near the Po River, a few minutes walk from Centro, where many of the famous palazzos are located. A’Livella, located on Corso Belgio around the corner from our apartment, serves fresh, tasty Neopolitan pizza. Expect crowds. Restaurant Tefy, also on Corso Belgio, is operated by a hospitable couple who focus on Piemontese cuisine. We ate a traditional multi-course meal that started with two antipasto courses totaling seven dishes, then featured pasta, a meat course and dessert. We did not leave hungry. Ask for advice about wine–they offer several local, inexpensive choices. The bottle of Nebbiolo we drank was a bargain at 20 euros.

Travel & Adventure

Go when you want, see what you like

Whenever I run across the question, “What should I see when I visit [blank]?” I can guess most of the answers. Helpful folks will respond with a list of the usual landmarks, often with tips about avoiding crowds.

There are a lot of people who want nothing more than to shoot a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower. There’s not anything necessarily wrong with that. But Greatest Hits tours of places, particularly major cities, can lead travelers to miss a lot. A lot.
Fiat 500
So here’s a tip: Throw out the guidebooks and steer clear of TripAdvisor, travel when you want and see what you like.

Years ago, my wife Beth and I traveled to Ireland in early October. We booked flights to Shannon and had a rental car waiting. We had a map, but no plans. We had a rough idea of places we wanted to visit, but no hard and fast itinerary for the ten days we would be there. The best experiences we had weren’t in a guidebook–they came from asking a lot of questions and turning down a lot of two track trails. We picked up student hitchhikers, bought drinks for locals in pubs and always asked, “Where should we go next?”

That led us to castles that perhaps one to two people a week visited. We stood five feet away from Chieftain’s flautist Matt Molloy while he played a set with friends in his pub in Westport. We had an impromptu meet up at dinner with acquaintances from the trip including some innkeepers, a Welsh couple and a retired CIA agent. And, we had tea at a house where Charles de Gaulle spent part of his retirement.

Since then, we’ve traveled mostly during the fall and winter. We miss the crowds (well, we don’t really miss them), and we have opportunities to experience things that don’t take place in the crush of summer. Like Nuit Blanche in Paris, where we traveled around the city at night, playing in the fog sculpture at Place de République and running into marching bands that took over city streets.

In the same way, we focus on what we want to see. Like the morning I hung out at Cycles Alex Singer, talking shop in a place that shaped bicycle culture in France since 1938. It’s not in the guidebooks, but to me it’s a bucket list item. There’s a connection, however small, between that shop and my life around bicycles. I can’t say that many of the monuments make the same connection.

In the same way, our visit to Italy this year was guided by one thing: To see as many of Bernini’s works as possible. That’s been Beth’s longtime dream, and though it didn’t rule out visiting the major landmarks–and in fact, many Bernini sculptures are in famous monuments–it took precedence over them.

Everyone’s list of places that matter is different. What stokes your imagination?

Thanks for reading, and if you’re interested in architecture or automobiles look at this album of my photos from the Museo dell’Automobile di Torino. Cars and car culture are interests of mine, and if they’re yours this is a must-see place. Beth, who is more into Bernini than cars, admitted that it was far more interesting than she expected.