Family holiday in Chapel Hill

This year I had the privilege of ending my summer holiday by inviting my younger sister and her two oldest kids to spend a few days with me in Chapel Hill. It was fantastic! We all flew at the end of July into North Carolina only to find that the battery had died on old Helmut. So the next day, after a delicious breakfast at Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe and jump starting the car, we headed out to Audi Cary where they lent us a wonderful Q5 for the day while they changed the battery!

We drove to Raleigh where we visited Ray Price Harley Davidson, with its great drag racing museum. Then we went to downtown where we visited the Museum of Natural Sciences and had lunch at the Museum of History.

During our ten days here we went to church, visited every corner of campus, the Basketball Museum, the Planetarium, the Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, Wilson Library, the Ackland Museum, Hillsborough with its fantastic Matthew´s chocolates and Ayr Mount plantation, we even went to Duke (shhhh!!) and Durham.

They met some of my favorite people from Chapel Hill: my classmate, office mate, and little sister (in the absence of my real little sister) Alejandra who picked us up at the airport, Patrick my mailman, the folks at Ye Olde Waffle Shop, Missy Julian Fox, the folks at the Ronald McDonald House, Father Bill and Adam at church, the folks at Trader Joe’s, even the High Priest, Professor Frank Dominguez.

The culinary experience was just as awesome, we went to Five Guys, Suttons, Maple View farm for ice cream, Buns for their grilled salmon sandwich, Mellow Mushroom for Pizza, Top of the Hill, Akai Hana for sushi, and the highlight being North Carolina barbecue.

Other highlights were when we played soccer on one of the soccer fields, or when we set up the big screen digital projector home theater to watch Disney’s Alexander and Annie, volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill, visiting the Mall (and the outlet mall), Dick’s Sporting Goods, Target, and of course Walmart, which Jimmy loved.

We had a blast. My niece, infused by the entrepreneurial spirit of the land set up a table on the street to sell her hand-made bracelets. Unfortunately, living in a dead-end street in August meant that she did not have many costumers – although she did manage a couple of sales, the proceeds of which she donated to the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill!

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Alfredo’s Barbacoa

With my nephew Jimmy

With my nephew Jimmy

Victor working hard

Victor working hard

The Valencia Crew

The Valencia Crew

Blessed with friends

Blessed with friends

Alfredo's

Alfredo’s

Preparing my trip w Alfredo and Pipe

Preparing my trip w Alfredo and Pipe

Alfredo's

Alfredo’s

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Meta Photo

My über trendy sister’s boyfriend, told me about Alfredo’s in the mid-eighties but I never got to go until 1990 when I moved back to Madrid from Boston. I would have lunch there with my office mates every Friday: “Fridays is Freddy’s” was our war cry. These lunches would include Alfredo’s legendary burgers and a lot of beer and bourbon. Needless to say Friday afternoons back at the office were not very productive. That was my first contact with Alfredo, and as Rick would tell Chief Inspector Renault in Casablanca: it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Alfredo, an American living in Madrid and me, a Spaniard that had grown up in America.

Alfredo’s Barbacoa is an authentic – and by that I mean authentic, burger joint in Madrid. The burgers are from the best Northern Spanish cows, (the awesome steaks come from American Heifers bred in Denmark), the meat is cooked on an oak charcoal grill, and that makes all the difference. The coleslaw is a touch sweet and even hard-core Alabamians swear by it. There is Miller and Bud, (and Jack and SoCo), the decor is full on Americana, with the odd Spanish reference thrown in for reality’s sake. The TV is always showing rodeo shows, Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks or nowadays Taylor Swift. The dining public goes from the prince of Spain and the odd assorted celeb, to full Spanish families for weekend lunches, working lunch executives, Americans that treasure Alfredo’s like the gem it is, all sorts of party groups and of course the die- hards.

With time I got to know Alfredo’s family, all the wait staff, the cooks, everybody. When I moved to my bachelor pad in the mid-nineties I lived literally around the block from Alfredo’s so it almost became my dining room. Some nights when the joint would close Alfredo and I would go out and hit the bars, fortunately we occasionally still do!

My relationship continues with Alfredo, his son-in-law Victor and the rest of the family and staff: I would host most of my company’s important meals there including client and vendor meetings, even my dealer convention was hosted there. Tracy and I held our Spanish wedding party there, we even dressed up in our wedding outfits! My little sister Rocky hosted a dinner with all my friends the first Christmas that I came back after a year in Boston. My friends from Valencia always go there for a meal when they are in town. I hosted University alumni reunions. I always took my students there when they good homesick of American food.  And of course I go there as often as I can, alone or with friends. Last week I treated my sister and her lovely family!

So Alfredo and his (now) three restaurants are an important part of my life in Madrid, it is my favorite restaurant, my go to restaurant and more importantly I feel like family there.

La Navata

La Navata is a tiny village outside Madrid, near the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains, where Hemingway’s For whom the Bell Tolls is set, the village is so small it is actually dependent of the bigger nearby village of Galapagar, home of Nobel Prize winning playwright Jacinto Benavente and of the current top bullfighter José Tomás. La Navata itself only has a train station, two bars, a kiosk, a hairdresser, a pharmacy, a small supermarket, and an old, small, stone chapel, San Antonio de La Navata.

My parents bought a weekend/summer house here in 1974, when I was 9 years old. In the early 80’s we added the second floor. If I have a home, this is it. This is my “happy place” where I take my mind when I need to relax. This is where most of my childhood memories were made. This is where I learned to ride motorcycles and to drive – my granddad Antonio patiently guiding me round and round the dirt garden, before we put in grass, in La Petra, our old Citroen 2CV. This is where I made my first and oldest friends, where I learned the little tennis I play, where I have done most of my stargazing, reading, bicycle riding, gardening, hiking and barbeques, where I kissed a girl for the first time (quite sloppy if you must know), where I started tinkering with all things mechanical – although mostly motorbikes, where hiking and skiing trips started, and where great summer (and I guess also winter) parties were hosted.

I used to come here for the weekends in winter, reading by the blazing fireplace, and spending the summer in the pool, the garden and the porch, going indoors only when absolutely necessary.

La Navata is about a fifteen minute drive from El Escorial, built by Phillip II, it houses a palace, monastery, school, mausoleum for all the Haubsburg and most Spanish  Bourbon kings, and one of the most important – and beautiful  – libraries, in the world.  Growing up I spent a lot of time in this place, walking around the palace, gardens, surrounding hills, and the town. I still spend a lot of time here, specially with my friend Patxi, with whom I founded the Asociación A. de Amantes del Escorial in the early 90s.

In 1992 I got a job at a photo equipment supplier near here and I lived in La Navata for about a year. It was a lot of fun, living in this big old house alone, cooking, reading by the fire, and going into Madrid for the weekends doing a reverse weekend commute!

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El Escorial

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The view during a bicylce ride

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Caf’é con leche at the clasico Marcelino bar, at 10 am they have barely opened!

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Jacinto Benavente at Galapagar´s Plaza

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San Antonio de la Navata

Life in La Navata is very quiet. I start off with a refreshing wake-up swim in the pool, which makes breakfast a cool joy on the porch. Then there is a walk into the village to buy bread for the day, the newspapers and any other groceries, I stop at the bar for a nice café con leche. There are always chores and gardening and pool maintenance to be done before a pre lunch swim. After siesta things actually slow down even more in the heat of the afternoon and I can read, or hang out with the fam. Nowadays with my nephew and two nieces things are a bit more chaotic, but always fun. The afternoon swim is normally the longest one and then I have time to work out in my homemade gym, or run or go for a bicycle ride before dinner. After dinner we sit around, chat, enjoy a mojito made with old Cuban rum (which is unavailable in the US) and mint from the garden, or a gin tonic, or whatever we can  find, sometimes accompanied by a cigar.

Mallorca

My family used to go on holidays to Galicia, the Northwest coast of Spain. Atlantic water temperature and Atlantic waves. When my little sister Rocky was born we decided to switch our holidays to Mallorca island on the Mediterranean, where we found a little “cala”, inlet on the south shore of the island. Warm, beautiful, tranquil, crystal clear water.  We have been coming to the same place for the last forty odd years, Camp de Mar. First we stayed at the “Gran Hotel”, old world style and panache, real furniture, “sit down dinner”, even a springboard on the beautiful pool! Unfortunately, after falling into disrepair it was razed and turned into a gaudy monstrosity.  So we rotated through a series of rental homes until in the early 00s we found the Dorint. A resort built on what used to be an old farm where we used to go on nice summer evening walks eating the carobs off the ground. Some of my fondest memories are of excursions around the island, walking the old streets of the capital, Palma de Mallorca, with it’s beautiful squares and Gothic cathedral. I loved coming to the island when I had my own business and customers to visit. For many years when I had the money I rented a rag top Jeep to drive around the island and to go to the village to pick up freshly made ensaimadas, the local pastries, enjoying the sun and wind in my face and hair (I had hair then).

For the last few years my parents have been bringing their grandkids on holidays here. The rest of us come and go as time and money allow! I have been able to come for the last three years and I love it.

There is something magical about these islands. The light, the sea, the warm, dry days and nights, the intoxicating sweet smell of night. Not surprisingly it is, and has been home to Phoenicians, Romans and Moors, Chopin and George Sand, Agatha Christie, Rubén Dario, Joan Miró, and more recently Michael  Douglas, Claudia Schiffer, and of course Rafa Nadal.

Our life here is very quiet. Wonderful breakfasts with local pastries, quiet beach, pool, siestas, and nice meals. I enjoy the gym, swimming, running on the local forested hills, evening walks with the family after dinner and the bar at night. But most of all I am getting a ton of reading done for my Ph.D. exams next spring! On Sundays I go to the village to the 1248 church for mass (granted it was pretty much re-done in 1703, but still).

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Hallowed Boards

Wollen GymOnly a bit intimidatingThe RockHallowed boardsIt only took me a year to build up the courage to go down to shoot some baskets at the old Woollen Gym. I go there often but I head straight for the swimming pool. This time, at the cage, instead of asking for a towel, I borrowed a basketball. First surprise: every ball has a name, it is written with a Sharpie marker. The one I got, “The Rock” just also happens to be the nickname I have for my little sister Rocio, Rocky, coincidence? I think not. Then into the huge gym. There are about 20 courts and most of them were full. I knew enough not to try to play with anyone, as I suck, and I have not played with any consistency since I left Spain in 2004. So I kept going until I got to the very far end where the last six courts were empty, enough for me to make a fool of myself without embarrassing myself – or the school, too much.

I played around for an hour, breaking into a sweat, thinking of and missing all the great people that have helped me and inspired me in this game, visualizing the UNC greats that might have played on that same court: Michael Jordan, Rasheed Wallace, et al. A great physical and emotional workout, or anabolic cardio as Stjepan would call it.