Vinalium, Barcelona, Spain

Go here.  Wine shops are not all created equal, nor are they equally endowed with knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and patient owners that are happy to have an actual exchange about wine, rather than rush to sell you on whatever bottle they are getting margin on at the moment.  I knew I’d found a kindred spirit when we stumbled upon the subject of the prevailing wine rating system – Javi and I shared our mutual disdain for the commercial, silly 100-point system and how certain wine illuminati manage to warp the market with high-ranking reviews of often pedestrian offerings.

Yet I digress.  At Vinalium you will find a focused selection of wines from all regions of Spain, including some commercial favorites, all at friendly prices.  However, it’s in the sections devoted to regional offerings and smaller producers where you’ll find some exciting stuff.  From Cava to Penedés, Empordá to Montsant, Javi and Karen, his American partner and wife (whom I did not get to meet) have your number.  To top it off, they run a thriving online store that will deliver cheaply and quickly in Barcelona, as well as abroad.

So what are you waiting for – go!

Vinalium, Carrer de Casanova 33, 08011, Barcelona, Spain

Bar Nestor, San Sebastián-Donostia, Spain

I heard about this place from a friend who had recently passed through San Sebastián.  It had been a good twelve years since I’d been through the gorgeous Basque fishing town and its horseshoe bay.  But the food I remembered well.  Years ago I had my local spot where I would get a late breakfast of mussels and cava, before going to sleep for a bit out on the beach.  Sublime.

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Chuleta de buey

At Bar Nestor questions are kept to a blessed minimum, and the answer is always “sí!”  Do you want chuleta?  Of course.  Do you want tomatoes?  That’s not a real question.  Will you have peppers?  You’re no fool.  The only real question to ponder is what wine you will choose, and they do have a selection.  One thing to keep in mind for those inclined to order a bottle:  in English we might use the words “powerful” or “strong” to refer to a big-flavored or robust wine.  In the Spanish wine lingo of Spain, the word “fuerte” (i.e. strong or powerful) actually refers to the tannins.  A fuerte wine will have a lot of tannin.  I learned this the hard way by expecting a powerful and robust red to accompany my chuleta, but ending up with a wine so tannic that it felt like sucking on tree bark.  Please be advised.

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Perfection.

The first thing you will see is the most gorgeous hunk of meat you have ever laid eyes on.  Amazing, sea salt-coated slabs of chuleta de buey (a bone-in local grass-fed ribsteak), steaming and spitting on their flatiron grills.  They don’t ask you what temperature to cook it.  They already know what’s best:  sizzling medium rare, with an emphasis on the rare.  Whatever alchemy Nestor has wrought; the incantations you will never learn.  Just be happy he lets you enjoy the fruits of his magical labors.  The tomatoes come crudely sliced into uneven hunks, coated with olive oil, and generously heaped with more sea salt.  The peppers are fried and deliver only light heat every seventh pepper, or so the local grandmothers will tell you.

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Tomates!

Nestor won’t discuss opening another restaurant or expanding the one he has.  Believe me, I tried.  He laughed heartily at the suggestion that he open a spot in Washington or New York, waiving his finger and shaking his head all the while.  Whatever else you do while visiting San Sebastián, do yourself a huge favor and just go here.  The staff is magnificently friendly (particularly for Spanish speakers) and you will not be met with a bewildering array of choices:  just an amazing steak, cooked perfectly.  Get the tomatoes and, if you’re hungry enough, get the peppers.  You can thank me later.

Address: Bar Nestor, Pescadería no. 11, San Sebastián-Donostia, Spain

La Boquilla, Cartagena, Colombia

Like many Latin American cities, Cartagena doesn’t have very nice city beaches. Blame it on the busy port or on poor sewage and waste management. In Boquilla you will find the nicest beaches available on the mainland near Cartagena. Locals compare it to Miami for the small strip of beachfront properties, relative security, and availability of water sports rentals and instruction. We rented a beachfront property here via AirBNB and it was an excellent decision. Beware the locals hanging around on the north end of the beach – the beach abuts against an old shanty town and not all of the locals get that stealing from beachgoers is less sustainable than selling them things of value. Not a good spot for night beach walks, but very secure during the day.

Address: La Boquilla, Highway 90A, Cartagena, Colombia

Chivas Party Tour, Cartagena, Colombia

I know it seems touristy and cheesy, but just do it. Do it, and do it early in your trip because IMG_0016you’re likely to make friends that will last longer than your time in Cartagena. For a set fee (I think it was about $20 per person, but not certain) you will ride around for a few hours with 50 or so of your best new friends from around the globe, drink the rough local aguardiente freely, and sing new songs at the top of your lungs. In fact, be smart and buy your own clave, guiro, or maracas from one of the hawkers plying the streets of el Centro before you board so that you can play along with the Vallenato band in the back. Buy your own bottle of Ron Medellin to take with you – you’ll make plenty of new friends by sharing shots with former strangers that can’t quite stomach the cheap local firewater the chiva provides. The chivas will tour around to pick up folks from various hotels that booked their activities in advance – welcome each group loudly with a smile and you will be their hero. Each bus has its own MC who will goad you into activities and contests, the most fun of which are against the other chivas at stoplights. Don’t be a wet blanket – throw yourself so far into it that other passengers think you’re part of the show and you will not be disappointed. Most chivas stop into several discotecas for a drink and a dance, then load up and you’re off! If you do nothing else touristy the whole time you are there, do this.

Address: Chivas Party Tour, various departing from La Torre del Reloj, intersection of Avenida Venezuela and Avenida Calle 24 Real, Cartagena, Colombia