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A Belmond Journey

While you’re in London, the last question you’ll ask yourself is “why leave?”. With iconic music landmarks, bespoke fashion, and provocative museums at every turn, it’s no wonder that this metropolis is one of the most visited cities in the world.

But an excursion that you absolutely must put on your itinerary is a luxury train journey with the Belmond British Pullman. These train cars have many a tale to tell, having hosted notable guests like Sophia Loren, President and Madame Vincent Auriol of France, and Sir Laurence Olivier. Rich in history, these cars were used in some of the famous rail services of Britain including the Brighton Belle and the Queen of Scots. The British Pullmans, all of which have been refurbished and restored to lavish, yet comfortable grandeur, are named after American George Mortimer Pullman, who designed these trains to be “palaces on wheels”.

And it definitely felt like a palace from the moment I first stepped foot on the train. Greeted by friendly staff eager to help me settle in to my plush chair, I sipped on my peach bellini while taking in the art nouveau decor and delicate vintage details. Waiting for other guests to board, I read up on these luxury rail cars like the Minerva, Audrey, and my car Perseus, which was Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral train car in 1965.

 

Before long, our journey started as we pulled away from Victoria Station and headed towards the English countryside. While enjoying the most sumptuous brunch of Scottish smoked salmon, caviar, and a warm buttered crumpet, all served on the British Pullman’s signature china, I quickly became friends with the travelers across the aisle. Well-versed in the British legal system, my neighbors shared some of the nuances of their system and recommended I visit the Royal Courts of Justice when back in London. What I loved most about our conversation was the personal, cross-cultural exchanges that can only happen while you’re traveling. We discussed the differences between the British and American systems, the U.S. constitution and its cultural grip on gun laws, and what it means to rehabilitate a citizen in the justice system.

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Looking out the window, I drifted off into a pleasant state of daydream as our journey wove through farmlands edging out of a winter frost. Grazing sheep and fields of pheasants dotted green pastures, while the gray clouds broke up as the sun beckoned. It was already turning out to be a beautiful day.

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As we arrived in Bath, our destination for the day’s journey, we were guided through the ancient town on a short bus tour that showed us the highlights. Our guide pointed out Jane Austen’s old haunts, the distinctive architecture of the city, and where to wander at our leisure, all while slipping in some interesting anecdotes.

 

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Exiting the bus, our guide whisked us past the long weekend lines to visit the Roman Baths. Once inside, it was like a flashback to my AP Latin courses from high school. Statues of Roman politicians like Julius Caesar and Vespasian lined the open terrace that overlooked these historic waters. As I sat under a blue sky with these statuesque stone figures above, I reminisced on my school days as president of the Latin Club, where we attended annual conventions that held everything from chariot races to spelling bees, all eventually ending in a nightly toga party.

Making my way up to the exit, I passed my self-assigned patron goddess Minerva, and marveled at the interior baths and stone architecture of this ancient site. With a few hours to roam the city of Bath at my leisure, I headed up towards the hill that led to Royal Victoria Park.

The best part of this Belmond journey is that there is something for everyone in Bath. You can meander through antique stores, catch a rugby match at a local pub, or if the weather is nice, sit outside in one of the parks and observe the greenery lined with intricate cathedrals, buildings, and monuments.belmond4

Always a purveyor of art galleries and museums, I wandered up Broad Street towards the Fashion Museum. Along the way I found Magalleria, a little shop that merged two of my favorite things: art and magazines. Named one of Bath’s best shops in 2016, Magalleria specializes in curating rare, provocative, and artistically designed publications. If you’re in need of a gift or a souvenir, browse their “gallery”. You’re sure to find something that is a smart alternative to a coffee-table book, and won’t weigh a ton in your luggage. After talking with Susan, Magalleria’s owner about the changing landscape in print publications and how artistic magazines are making a comeback, I made a mental note to connect her with a few publishing contacts back home.

Passing quite a few enticing bars and cafes, I was grateful that I didn’t have to worry about choosing a place to eat, as I would be treated to a delicious dinner on the British Pullman after departing Bath. All the more time to wander these quaint streets!

My final stop in Bath was to the Fashion Museum, which seemed fitting as it was Fashion Week back in London. I started with the newly opened exhibit, Lace in Fashion, that displayed intricate designs, dresses, and decor dating from the 1500s. Walking past gowns by Balmain, Dior, and a beaded dress worn by Elizabeth Taylor during her controversial trip behind the “Iron Curtain” to Moscow, I thought about my recent visit to the Luna Mae showroom, where dreams of bespoke lace lingerie come to life. Seeing this craftsmanship behind glass gave me a new appreciation for this elegant material.

As the British Pullman rolled out of the station, I thought about the Romans’ contributions to transportation, the developments since that era, and how much we depend on these various modes today. Watching the sun set, I savored each bite of the most delicious cauliflower soup, a perfect starter to the freshly made seasonal menu served for this trip’s dinner.train

Over a few more courses which included a delectable daube of beef, dauphinoise potatoes, and a cheese plate sampling regional cheeses from the British Isles, I caught up with my neighbors about what they saw on their afternoon in Bath. As it turns out, we all carved different paths throughout the town, each of us highlighting a favorite experience.

Winding our way back to London, I was already thinking about when I could travel on another Belmond journey. Luckily there are many options to choose from! The newly launched Belmond Grand Hibernian, Ireland’s first luxury touring train, glides through rugged countryside, winding along the striking scenery of Ireland’s northern coast. Or choose the highly anticipated Andean Explorer, South America’s first luxury sleeper service, where you can see the spellbinding curves and natural crevices of Peru.

Regardless of your destination with the Belmond Trains, one thing is for certain – you’ll definitely have the trip of a lifetime. My journey on the luxurious British Pullman is something I hope everyone can experience on their trip to England. The superior service and world-class gastronomic fare provided by the British Pullman team, the intimate and daring conversations with your travel companions, and of course, the postcard scenery along the way all add up to create a unique journey for each of us. And really, that’s what travel is all about – the journey.

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Road to Rio

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One doesn’t normally think of using a cookbook for a travel guide, but there’s always an exception. My recent purchase, Rio De Janeiro: The Cookbook, was a welcome addition to my already bursting cookbook collection. I picked up this gem at my favorite neighborhood bookstore, and after flipping through the pages, I was delighted to find that the recipes came with “dicas”, or tips, on everything from where to find a feijoada feast for a weekend brunch to a recipe for creamy coconut cake to a list of local farmers’ markets. Using Chef Leticia’s cookbook as a guide, I quickly charted a map that included some of her recommendations.

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Reading more about Chef Leticia in her book, I knew that we’d become instant friends. We both loved travel, indulged in languages and word games as children, and of course shared a love for Rio. When we spoke, Leticia credited her “carioca” heritage as a large influence on her culinary development. “Going to the farmers’ markets here in Rio and talking to the street vendors where they taught you about the different fruits and vegetables had a huge influence on me.”

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Inspired by her local surroundings, other culinary creatives in Brasil like Chef Claude Troisgros, and publications like Gula and Food & Wine, Leticia created a cookbook that guides its readers through a tasty tour of Rio’s diverse neighborhoods. When I asked Leticia about her opinion of Rio cuisine, she said it highlights the influence of Portuguese culture in the diaspora of African, Indian, and European history that is Brazil. “You can see it in people’s faces, in the botequins, the architecture, and of course in the food.”

And so my food tour commenced in downtown Rio, known as Centro to locals. I headed to Confeitaria Colombo, a Rio institution and landmark. Confeitaria Colombo is a marvelous mixture of café, bakery, restaurant, and bar, with an emphasis on the bakery part. Upon entering this downtown destination, I quickly understood why this place was on Haute Living’s list of “Top 10 Most Beautiful Cafes in the World.” With stiff competition from mostly European listings, Confeitaria Colombo rightfully deserves its place on the list with its gilded interiors.

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Over a bountiful Brazilian breakfast of cakes, cookies, cheese, and of course, coffee, I spoke with head Chef Thiago about the historic guestlist of Confeitaria Colombo, dating back to the time when Rio de Janeiro was the capital of Brazil. This historic café received presidents from all over the globe and Thiago mentioned a recent visit by the Royal family and the Queen of England as his personal highlight. Tartelettes

As I marveled at the decor, Chef Thiago told the story of the cafe’s founders. “The story started with two Portuguese men – pioneers that had their mind set on creating the best pastry shop in Brazil. They brought with them the best tiles from Europe, mirrors from Belgium, and of course, pastry chefs from France.”

Surrounded by so many delicious desserts must be daunting for anyone’s diet, so I had to ask Chef Thiago what was his favorite. With a gleam in his eye, he instantly said “pastel de nata”, a traditional Portuguese dessert that has a light custard in delicate crusted cups. Having never sampled this sweet, I made a note to try it on my next visit. He went on to share how he looks forward to Christmas here at the café, when droves of families line up to take home these scrumptious sweets to share with their families.

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Eager to walk off my hearty breakfast, I made my way to the National Library. Situated in the heart of Centro, with the Theatro Municipal and the National Museum of Fine Arts as its neighbors, this Library is a national treasure. Established by Dom João Pedro, who sits at the base of the stairwell, the library held more than 60,000 books at its inception, a rare case for any library, since most build their collections over time. In fact, as my guide Max pointed out, it was in the Peace Treaty of 1825 that the Portuguese Royal family sold the vast literary collection to Brazil, giving this historic site its rightful place as UNESCO’s 8th biggest national library in the world, now with over 20 million pieces.

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As the collection grew over the years, the Library relocated to many homes throughout Rio before finally settling on its current location in 1910. Max, a human library himself, reflected on the library’s historic importance. “It’s a building that reminds us cariocas of a period of great change here in the city center because in the beginning of the 20th century Rio was the capital of Brazil and the main goal of the mayor was to make Rio similar to a European city. He used as his inspiration the Belle Epoque in Paris and French architecture. Examples of this are the Municipal Theater, the National Museum of Fine Arts, and other buildings along Rio Branco Avenue.”

The magnificent interior of the Library is a testament to this European influence, with structural details like Neoclassical arcs at the entrance, Corinthian columns, a stairwell imported from Germany, and French glass ceilings. Behind these architectural displays are housed a phenomenal rare books collection, whose importance goes beyond Brazil. The original printed edition of Luís de Camões’ Os Lusíadas, sits in the collection, much to the disdain of many Portuguese, Max noted with a grin. “This masterpiece is as important to the Portuguese language as Shakespeare to English, Cervantes to Spanish, or Goethe to German.”

Rio National Library

Also housed here are original legal documents like the Lei Áurea, which abolished slavery in Brazil and was ushered into proclamation by Princess Isabel in the late 1800s, a multitude of dictionaries, including those of indigenous Brazilian languages, like Tupi-Guarani, and Yorubá, the African language that Max mentioned is very present in Brazilian Portuguehouaissse.

Wandering through the halls of the library and an exhibit of Antônio Houaiss’ contributions to the Portuguese language, I thought about the fascinating fusion of cultures that is ever-present here in Brazil. While Rio is definitely an epicenter for Brazilian culture, this large country has a vast landscape that cannot be covered in one trip. Luckily, my visa is good for a few more years.

When mentioning to Max that I had just come from the famous café, he pointed out that the same jacaranda wood that was used to make the desks and interiors of the Library was used on the mirrors of the Confeitaria Colombo. He also said, in a secretive tone that the Library houses some of the rare recipes from Portugal, which he whispered “us Brazilians are always trying to replicate in our bakeries.” When I mentioned Chef Thiago’s favorite, pastel de nata, Max gave me some mortileslibrarye insight. “There is a patent on the name of that dessert. If it is made there in Belem, in that region, it’s called ‘pastel de Belem’. Anywhere else, it’s ‘pastel de nata’. Kind of like French champagne.” He gave a knowing smile and led me through the halls tiled with mosaics from Morocco, while we chatted about the library decor, philosophy, and Brazilian politics. We eventually agreed that no matter where you are from in the world, we are definitely living in a climate of change, and hopefully for the better.

Walking up Avenida Presidente Antonio Vargas, I stopped in the Palácio Tiradentes. A royal looking piece of architecture with its sprawling entrance, I entered not knowing anything about the place. As my guide led me through the halls, I learned that this building was originally the site of the first Republic of Brazil, back during Rio’s time as the country’s capital. Along the walls, the mosaic tiles, and in the etchings of the chairs and pillars are coffee leaves. These details, as my guide shared, were a homage to Brazil’s early ruling class, many of whom were coffee farmers.

Upon entering the main hall where current state laws are reviewed, I was immediately struck by the immense murals around the perimeter and along the ceiling. Showing different scenes from Brazil’s beginnings, my guide highlighted Pedro Álvarez Cabral, the Portuguese bandeirantes, and the French Marianne waving the flag of liberty. She poignantly pointed out that these images were a “romantic vision of Brazil’s history. It looks very peaceful, but in fact it was not.” Of course this made me think of romanticized versions of America’s pilgrims and their settling along the eastern seaboard, giving way to our Thanksgiving holiday. I guess, as Oscar Wilde wrote, sometimes art doesn’t always imitate life.

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Back in Zona Sul, I was eagerly looking forward to my visit at design marvel, Fasano Hotel in Ipanema. Meeting with the hotel’s communications and marketing department for the ideally situated Rio location of this iconic hotel, I learned more about the history of designer Philippe Starck’s first project here in Brazil. Sitting poolside, which is where all meetings should take place if they offer this stunning view, they shared with me some of the unique features of Fasano. “The experience here is an extension of Rogério Fasano himself; a mirror of his personality. It’s evident in the smallest of details, with an understated luxury.”

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And it truly is. From the moment you step into the lobby, you are greeted with an aura of discreet, yet superior hospitality. Designing the hotel with sustainability in mind, the repurposed pequiá wood from the Amazon is used throughout the hotel. You’ll see it in the lobby, the bedside tables, and even at the front desk, which is formed from a large log of this rare wood. The simplicity of natural materials like dark pequiá, marble, native plants, and red brick are all weaved together to provide guests with a visually appealing and comforting vibe, a true escape from Rio’s raucous scene.

With a family history well-versed in gastronomy, the Fasano experience wouldn’t be complete without a tribute to a luxurious dining experience. “It’s important for us to take food seriously, but with a ‘slow food’ manner,” the staff mused. “The restaurant, Fasano al Mare, which is a misnomer in a way, highlights an Italian Mediterranean cuisine, replete with housemade pasta dishes that contain local ingredients.” One bite of the Tortelli Di Vitelo, their signature dish, is a testament to this superb dining philosophy. Delicate folds of fresh pasta envelop tender cuts of veal, tempting your taste buds to savor every morsel of these pillows drizzled with Parmesan fondue. Chef Paolo Lavezzini’s menu draws on his expertise from award-winning restaurants in Florence, subtly influencing every element of this gastronomic gem.

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While the mirrored ears, a Starck design hallmark, listened in on our conversation, I heard an anecdote about the hotel’s owner. “Rogério loves cinema and had been studying film in London; he dreamed of being a director and one of his idols was Francis Ford Coppola. After receiving a call to come back to Brazil and manage the family business, Rogério left his film career behind.” But with a stroke of serendipitous luck, Rogério would one day meet his idol when Coppola paid a visit to this famed hotel. “He was a little nervous about asking the celebrated director for an autograph, but he did and now it sits on our Hall of Fame wall just outside of the Baretto-Londra bar!” An homage to London, Rogério’s favorite city, the pub-style bar hosts both DJs and classic rock bands, with décor characteristic of British music icons. The signature Union Jack flag hangs in the background, but the colors provide a nod to Fasano’s Italian heritage.

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Luckily for travelers who appreciate the Fasano philosophy, the hotel is expanding throughout Latin America. With Brazilian locations as close as Angra dos Reis and Belo Horizonte opening in the next year, and projects planned for Miami and the reopening of  Uruguay’s property, travelers seeking out this “understated luxury” won’t have to look further than one of Fasano’s meticulously planned hotel experiences.

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If you need souvenirs, or even a gift for yourself, just down the way is Ipanema’s shopping district, which is full of Brazilian brands: Osklen, Francesca Romana, Melissa, and of course the ubiquitous Havaianas. Depending on your budget, and how much space you have in your carry-on, you’ll be sure to find a way to support the Brazilian economy with a visit to these boutiques – gift list in hand.

Maybe you keep up on travel trends like “voluntourism”, work for a company that sponsors volunteer vacations abroad, or just have a desire to help others in need. Doing community service while traveling is an alternate lens to learn about the countries we visit. Eager to participate in Stanford’s “Beyond the Farm”, my alma mater’s annual day of community service event, I joined a Mais Caminhos event early one Saturday morning. Mais Caminhos, the community outreach arm of the language center Caminhos, organized a group of volunteers from all over the globe, many of whom are studying Portuguese at the center, to head up the street to a local school, Solar Meninos de Luz.

Solar Meninos de Luz was founded in 1991 to bring educational, health, and cultural programs to the favela neighborhoods that sit behind Ipanema, and has grown over the years, now supporting over 5,000 families. When we arrived at the school, we were greeted by Brama, a spirited soul who manages the Paulo Coelho Library. After sharing some of the history of the school, the library, and its famous donor, Brama gave us a tour of the classrooms, all lined with artwork and projects from its students. With a challenging charter before us, we began to clean and dust over 20,000 books that lined the shelves of this great community resource.

Beyond just providing an opportunity to do a bit of good for the local citizens, the Mais Caminhos event was a way for us foreigners to share travel tales and resources, as well as animated anecdotes from our struggles with learning a foreign language here in Brazil. While diligently dusting off copies of classics like Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and volumes by Brazilian authors Clarice Lispector, and Paulo Coelho himself, I thought back on my own experience of living here and learning a foreign language as an adult. Life changing, it is one of my proudest accomplishments, and I’m always encouraging others to do the same. Meeting other language enthusiasts while making a positive change in this neighborhood was definitely a highlight of this trip.

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Later that evening, I headed to nearby Botafogo, which has a lively mix of bars, bookstores, and oddly enough – hamburger joints. On my last visit, I ended up at Hell’s Burguer, which is always a good option. But after reading Veja’s Comer & Beber list of top hamburger spots, I had to try the famed Comuna. This first place winner has a small menu, and rightfully so, since the burgers are a meal in themselves. There’s no need for fries. Just make sure and indulge in one of their handcrafted milkshakes after you’ve had enough time to digest your food.

Botafogo is also a great neighborhood if you like to barhop. Start with the stretch of bars that are easily accessible from the metro. One of my favorites, The Boua, has a bountiful selection of beers on tap, and an accompanying menu of traditional Brazilian appetizers, but with a twist. The mandioca, linguica, and of course, batata frita, or French fries are all large enough to share. My favorite is a mixture of octopus, sausage, and potatoes, all melted together with gouda cheese in a bread bowl; something that instantly transported me to San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.

Also in the area is Bar Bukowski, a lively weekend-only spot where you can get a hefty dose of classic rock and sing along to your favorite Stones’ songs with the locals. For a more mellow vibe, there’s the WineHouse if you want to sip on your favorite bottle of Chilean cabernet coupled with crispy bruschetta and other small bites to pair with your glass. Their cellar has a diverse, yet appealing selection of wines from Italy, France, and some hard to find Brazilian wines, which you can sample during their weekday happy hour.

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For some of us, happy hour is a time to get outside and enjoy those last hours of sunshine. If this is you, then a walk, or a bike ride, along Botafogo Bay should be on your list. Depending on how far you want to go, you can weave your way towards Flamengo, or head in the other direction towards the Yacht Club, down to Urca, and end up at Praia Vermelha. Nestled in this cove where throngs of tourists make their way up to the top of picturesque Pão de Açucar is a small beach where you can sit and see the sky light up with colorful streaks as the sun sets behind you.

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My next, and final, dining destination was to Zaza’s Bistro, a colorful restaurant that makes their eating experience a full sensory adventure. With its quirky decor, Zaza’s envelops you in a tropical version of a Tim Burton movie set, all while waiting for your highly anticipated meal. The Gilson Martins placemats, gilded metal flowers, and inspiring quotes painted on the walls are all Instagram-worthy, and enough distraction while you wait for each course.

What’s unique about Zaza’s, and makes it hard to get a same-day reservation, is the attention to detail with each plate. The menu sources local, organic ingredients, often changing their menu from week to week, and infuses international flavors into traditional Brazilian dishes.

I started with an inventive appetizer of smoked octopus samosas served with a sweet chili marmalade, and paired these tasty starters with their “Soft Flora” drink, a delicate blend of mango, mint, coconut water, and tonic – the perfect refresher for a warm evening. But Zaza’s drink menu is worth a second glance; they artfully blend Brazilian fruits and their house favorite, Absolut vodka, to provide the perfect accompaniment to each of your courses. And definitely save room for dessert. If you can’t choose just one from the luscious list, opt for the chef’s degustation menu where you’ll be able to sample each of their delicious offerings.

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As I sat there enjoying each morsel, I thought back to my conversation with Chef Leticia and eagerly anticipated returning home to try some of her recipes. “Open your mind to new cuisines. I would love for people everywhere to integrate Brazilian cuisine into the mainstream. Shop local and eat global – that’s what I’m trying to show in my book.” Looking forward to planning my next dinner party menu, I recalled her advice about throwing a successful one: “Plan and do as much ahead of time as possible – that way you have more time to spend with friends!”

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As American As Mole

“I am an American discovering America”. These words by Marsden Hartley never rang truer than during my trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. This enchanting artists’ colony has been on my travel bucket list for some time. I had no idea the rich history, both culturally and culinary, that awaited me in this southwestern town.

A lover of all things epicurean, I enrolled in a cooking class at the suggestion of my hotel concierge. Santa Fe School of Cooking hosts a wide array of hands-on courses and tasting menus, which made it hard to choose, but I ultimately decided on “Mole & More”. Mole, a dish with endless ingredients and prep time that would deter most home chefs, has always intimidated a seasoned cook like myself. Little did I know that our instructor, Chef Michelle Chavez, would guide us through the process with ease, providing helpful tips and tricks along the way.

Chef Michelle Chavez provides a historical introduction to our class
Chef Michelle Chavez provides a historical introduction to our class

Michelle, equal parts historian, teacher, and foodie, began our four-hour session with an introduction that rivaled my AP US History class. During her talk, I learned more about this region of America than in my four years of high school history classes. “Every group of people who came through Santa Fe, be it on the Camino Real or the Santa Fe Trail, left an indelible impression on our food and culture. To remove one from our history would change our ways drastically”, shared Michelle as she pointed out the bountiful culinary traditions of those who had come before. “Corn, beans and squash, collectively known as The Three Sisters, were gifts of the native population, as well as the wine grapes, pigs, sheep, wheat and other cultivars brought by the Spanish.” She shared stories of the Pueblo, Zuni, and Oaxaca heritages, highlighting the often overlooked contributions of these Native Americans to this plentiful cuisine and culture.

Prepped ingredients ready for
Prepped ingredients ready for Michelle’s mastery

While Michelle mixed fresh beans, roasted fragrant chiles, and simmered Abuelita chocolate, she offered suggestions on everything from making bone broth to cookie-crumb crust. Scribbling down every word on my recipe sheets, I was eager to try these suggestions back home. With Food Network-style presentation, Michelle wove around the room with each course neatly timed. Each dish exceeded my palette’s expectations, and had a precise mixture of sweet and savory, all while offering that signature New Mexican spice.

As class came to a close, I had the opportunity to speak with Michelle and thank her for an unforgettable experience. After telling her about my spotty knowledge of American history, she recommended that I read Blood & Thunder by Kit Carson. Eager for a deeper insight to the history of New Mexico and the southwest, I added the book to my wish list. Not wanting the class to end, I asked Michelle for a photo and barraged her with other questions. Obliging, she mentioned that she was working on a book and that her travel bucket list location was “to the spice markets of Northern Africa and India; basically anywhere that has a strong food culture with great biodiversity.”

Weaving my way up through the center of town, I thought about my impromptu history lesson and what this area must have looked like centuries ago. I imagined towering rows of corn, fields of colorful squash, and an earthy expanse set against the stark blue sky and hovering mountains.

Entry to the New Mexico Museum of Art
Entry to the New Mexico Museum of Art

Stepping into the courtyard of the New Mexico Museum of Art, I now understood why so many artists had been drawn to this magical place. The Will Shuster murals that lined the courtyard offered a glimpse into what life was like on this land long ago.

Museum courtyard lined with artwork by WIll Shuster
Museum courtyard lined with artwork by WIll Shuster

Once inside the museum walls, I walked through the exhibit enjoying a multitude of interpretations on early American life. From Diego Romero’s Romanticism-inspired piece Olympia to Fritz Scholder’s larger than life Pop-Art Super Indian, I was overwhelmed by the wash of hues and textures that this “Summer of Color” inspired exhibit displayed. One piece drew me closer, and I stepped towards it in a cautious manner. The Scout, by Warren E. Rollins, made me wonder what was going through this man’s head.  Capturing the uneasy feeling of a stranger approaching, “Do I retreat? What do they want? Where are they from?” Rollins’ work left me pensive, yet uncomfortable.

Detail of Rollins'
Detail of Rollins’ “The Scout”

Moving on to Taos Pueblo-Moonlight, the neighboring oil painting by E. Irving Couse, I longed to step into the picture. A familiar, yet somber mood came over me as I studied the family around the fire: an elder passing on generational wisdom to an eager child.

Leaving the museum, I crossed through the square and absorbed the fresh breeze on this crisp, spring evening. Inspired by the varied artistic expressions, I took some photographs of passersby and local architecture. While seeking out my next stop, a local vendor in the square recommended that I take a walk up to San Miguel Mission.

San Miguel, the oldest church in the United States, has a simple façade washed in the burnt almond color that is ubiquitous in Santa Fe. With each creaking footstep, I made my way along the pews, admiring the quaint and homely church.

San Miguel interior
San Miguel interior

Approaching the altar, I dropped in some coins and lit a candle for my nephew. As I knelt down at the wooden altar, I looked into the foundation of the church. Squinting to make out the placard below, I could see the ruins of an Indian home dated 1300. My eyes welled up with heavy tears, overcome with the emotion and burden from the day’s lessons. I silently wept for all those who had lost their homes and habitats in that early round of colonization.  Walking slowly out of the small church, I wondered what it would be like to be displaced and lose my house and heritage in the process.

Foundation of San Miguel altar
Foundation of San Miguel altar

Once home, I was eager to try my hand at the menu that Michelle had so synchronistically prepared during my trip. Lucky enough to live in Los Angeles where many of these ingredients can be found, I reviewed my notes and assembled a shopping list for my recreation of “Mole & More”. Noting a few holes in my ingredient list, I called the school and ordered a few things to complete my menu.

Spicy honey from Santa Fe School of Cooking
Spicy honey from Santa Fe School of Cooking

I created a new acronym, WWMD, as I repeatedly asked myself through the lengthy preparation, “What would Michelle do?” With a few tweaks and twists, I prepared a spicy and sumptuous feast for a few friends. My delectable dishes were devoured in what seemed like minutes. Sharing stories of everything from summer romances to systemic racism, my guests and I enjoyed a fragrant and fulfilling meal. Pleased with my performance, I recounted stories and insights from my trip to Santa Fe and vowed to return to the southwestern town before year-end.

Santa Fe, New Mexico airport
Santa Fe, New Mexico airport

Frida’s Fiestas

Frida and I share the same zodiac. The world-famous artist, and spirited water sign, has long captured my attention. Although I just learned that Frida Kahlo was also a Cancer, I’ve been enamored with her life, style, and art for many years. In high school, I scoured flea markets in my LA suburb for tchotchkes bearing her unmistakable image. During my university years, I pored over books about this incredible woman, eventually saving some money to buy a cookbook honoring her culinary skills. Now, I am lucky enough to attend museums and cultural events highlighting Frida’s art and unique style.

Frida's studio
Frida’s studio with photograph of Diego Rivera

It wasn’t until I visited her famed Casa Azul in Mexico City that I finally understood this woman. I planned my trip around the Vogue-sponsored exhibit that displayed Frida’s shrouded wardrobe, which had been hidden from the public since her death. As I entered the exhibit, the first piece I saw stopped me dead in my tracks: her body cast. I stood there, tears rolling down my cheeks, as I came face to face with the object that embodied Frida’s tragedy, and ultimate impetus for her art. Confined by the cast, and eventually to her bed, Frida created some of her most somber, yet glorious art because of this physical adversity. Meandering through the lush gardens in her hacienda style home, I got a glimpse into the daily life of this provocative woman. Trotsky’s guest bedroom, the art studio that Frida and Diego shared, and the decorative kitchen, were just a few of the highlights of my visit to Casa Azul. The Frida Kahlo museum is a required destination for any visit to Mexico City. Coyoacan, which hosts the museum, is a short cab ride from the city center, and accessible by the city’s metro system.

After spending the morning in Frida’s former home, I wandered down the colorful Calle Ignacio Allende toward Jardin Hidalgo, stopping at the corner coffee spot, Café El Jarocho. As I sat outside El Jarocho sipping a latte and nibbling on churros purchased streetside, I talked with a local university student who suggested that I walk through the Mercado for jewelry and handicrafts. After promising to visit the Mercado, I bought a few pounds of coffee for souvenirs and walked down to the plaza. In a carnival-like atmosphere of colors, music, and aromas, I observed families out for an afternoon, tourists sampling street food, and vendors selling their wares.

Chiles en Nogada
The seasonal dish, Chiles en Nogada

As I rushed back to the city center, my only regret was that I didn’t stay in Coyoacan longer. But I had a good excuse; I was enticed by my reservation at Azul Historico to indulge in the seasonal dish “chiles en nogada”. I first learned of this dish, which is featured on local menus in September, in my aforementioned cookbook, Frida’s Fiestas. Azul Historico is nestled in the candlelit courtyard of Centro Historico. Colorful and fragrant dishes float around tables full of locals, business travelers, and tourists seeking an outdoor patio dining experience. After perusing the menu, I sputtered my order in broken Spanish and asked my server for this featured dish: “one of each, a sweet and a savory”. He chuckled knowingly, and recommended that I order just one and demonstrated the size of the stuffed chile with his hands. Picture-perfect and tied up with a red, white, and green bow to commemorate Mexican Independence day, my chile was worth the wait. I’m glad that I took his advice and enjoyed each morsel of my savory pork-filled entrée. Relishing each bite, I thought about Frida and the endless misfortune she overcame throughout her life, all while contributing to the world with her controversial art.

After dinner, I wandered through the courtyard and upstairs through some of the shops. Luckily, I happened upon Que Bo!, a local chocolatier that produces a small, but impressive menu of truffles, drinking chocolates, and other sweets to satiate any chocoholic. Sitting on the small balcony, I sipped my dessert and watched the diners at Padrinos, making a note to return and dine under their lush vertical garden. While walking back to my hotel, I heard music coming from an upstairs venue. Weaving my way across the street in a light rain, I headed upstairs to a small bar, La Diabla y La Santa. The band, Los Hijos de Chunga, was jamming in preparation for an upcoming music fest. Their sound, a hybrid of the Doors and Jethro Tull, was the perfect soundtrack to end a Friday night.

Museo Soumaya was next on my list. Its glistening exterior is probably one of the most photographed museum entrances in Latin America, if not the world. A generous gift from business tycoon Carlos Slim, Museo Soumaya makes art accessible to local Mexican citizens, as well as the international community. Upon entering the museum’s foyer, I was greeted by Rodin’s, “The Thinker”. Having seen this statue many times as an undergrad on my college campus, I made my way up to the circular ramp to the permanent exhibits. A vast array of styles and periods can be seen at Soumaya, including works by Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, commercial works by national artist Jesus Helguera, and Salvador Dali’s sculptures. With so much to see, I spent most of the day absorbing the diverse collection and made notes to revisit my art history books upon my return home.

Making my way back towards the hotel, I stopped at Limosneros Restaurante at the recommendation of hotel staff. Limosneros did not disappoint with its inventive take on Mexican gastronomy and Instagram-worthy presentation. I sampled a little bit of everything including a local mescal and some of the best ribs I’ve ever tasted, but the highlight of my meal was the “flautas de flor de jamaica”. Having used flor de jamaica, or hibiscus flowers, in tea and juice, I was surprised to see them featured in a savory dish. Pleased with my choices, I asked the server for a dessert recommendation and was more than satisfied with the molten chocolate cake infused with ground chiles and pepitas. Admiring the light fixtures, which looked like miniature goblets made of blown glass, I made my plan for the remainder of my trip. In a city that boasts loads of museums, second only to Paris worldwide, I narrowed it down to a few for the last leg of my trip.

Sunday morning found me at the obligatory mass. But in reality, I needed to stop in and say thank you for an amazing trip thus far. Upon entering the Metropolitan Cathedral at Zocalo, I realized that a young girl’s quinceañera mass had begun. I quietly wandered through this architectural masterpiece, the largest and oldest cathedral in Latin America. Counting my blessings and giving thanks for a safe journey, I ducked out of the cathedral and wandered over to the neighboring Templo Mayor. At the entrance, visitors are guided through the ruins that were left behind after conquistadors used the stone and foundation to build the adjacent Cathedral and other nearby monuments.

Sacrificial altar at Templo Mayor
Sacrificial altar at Templo Mayor

Templo Mayor has an expansive outdoor portion of the museum where visitors can wander through these anthropological discoveries and read about this important part of Mexican history.   Learning about the contributions of the Aztecs to Mexico’s foundation, both literally and figuratively, is a necessary stop for anyone visiting Mexico City.

After wandering along Calle Tacuba and some of the streets near the Zocalo, I worked up an appetite and stopped in to enjoy a bountiful brunch at El Cardenal. Waiters practically waltzed through the dining room, carrying large trays of pan dulce, clay jugs full of hot chocolate, and colorful jars of agua frescas. Tempted to order one of everything on the robust menu that featured seasonal dishes such as cuitlacoche, I opted for the Mexican classic, chilaquiles. But it was my starter that was the star of the show. The bean soup, a brothy mixture of poached eggs, spicy pintos, and fresh cheese, was accompanied by housemade tortillas. Simple and flavorful, it hit the spot for a mid-day meal. With a full belly, I walked down the streets near the Zocalo and picked up a few last minute souvenirs. My prized find was a silk scarf by Mexican designer, Pineda Covalin. Narrowing down my choices was difficult with so many vibrant designs to choose from, but my ultimate choice reflected some of the Aztec images that reminded me of my earlier trip to the Templo Mayor.

Patio café at Gran Hotel
Patio café at Gran Hotel

Back “home” at my hotel, I ended the day at the rooftop café overlooking the Zocalo. Sipping on a fresh, green juice, I reflected on all of the awe-inspiring experiences that I had while here. Eager to return, I felt grateful for the opportunity to learn a little more about my heritage and the contributions of the Mexican people and began to plan my next trip.