A Night Out in Old (and New) Havana

When we told people that we were going to Cuba, many had questions as to if that was even possible. We had some concerns, but in the end they turned out to be mostly unwarranted. The process is actually fairly simple, as long as the visit is part of a well-planned tour group… CONTINUE READING >> 

When we told people that we were going to Cuba, many had questions as to if that was even possible. Sure, for a long time it wasn’t, or was at least very difficult, then a few years ago it became much easier.

This past summer it became it bit more difficult again, but certainly not impossible. We won’t go into the politics or rationality of the situation, so let’s just say that for those of us with an open mind and an adventurous spirit Cuba is accessible.

We had some concerns, but in the end they turned out to be mostly unwarranted. The process is actually fairly simple, as long as the visit is part of a well-planned tour group. That is where Backroads excels, such as with our Cuba Bike Tour: National Parks, Rum & Latin Rhythms into Havana.

Being part of their special People-to-People experience meant that getting our Cuban Travel Cards, the equivalent of a visa, was basically a breeze and we had absolutely no issues entering or exiting the country.

One of the stipulations for travel from the U.S. is that tourists are not permitted to enter the Cuba more than 24 hours before their tour begins, or stay over 24 hours after it ends. Still, that left us with one night on our own in Havana before our bicycling began.

The ride into the city from the airport served as a quick tour as we passed revolutionary monuments, the old capitol building, and many grand old structures in various states of repair from regal to ruinous in this city founded over five hundred years ago.

Rather than trying to make the scene that was famous in the city’s glory days of yore, when nightclubs and casinos were all the rage, we chose to meet up with a few of our fellow cyclists and explore the burgeoning art scene.

That meant a trip to what has come to be known as simply La Fàbrica, the Fàbrica de Arte de Cubano, which means the Cuban factory of art.

As a special introductory to Havana bonus, we were more than pleasantly surprised that a 1955 Chevy Bel Aire showed up to take us when we called a taxi. We didn’t know it at the time, but discovered that many of the old American classics now serve as “illegal” taxis. In this case the lack of legality only means that they are not state run.

The museum is actually housed in an old factory, which creates a maze of variously sized rooms and spaces serving as galleries and performance venues. Originally part of the Havana Tramway back in the eighteen hundreds, the name recalls a famed cooking oil brand which occupied the premises pre-World War II.

The Factory opened in 2013 with the concept of uniting all forms of art, music, and theater and quickly became a must see in Havana, attracting some of the world’s most famous folks such as Mick Jagger, Lady Gaga, Quincy Jones, Beyoncé, and President Barack Obama.

Our visit came too early in the evening to catch any of the musical or theatrical performances, but we wandered through the numerous rooms admiring the innovative works in their unique settings, much of which has a decidedly political theme.

While drinks, snacks, and a full service restaurant are available, we decided to walk next door for dinner at El Cocinero Restaurant. This establishment, like the private taxi and the “casa” that where we were staying for our first night, is part of a new tourist economy that has emerged in Cuba.

A few years ago the government made the decision to pursue international tourism as a source of income, but the state run services were not ready to meet the demand so rules were put in place to allow some private ventures.

What sprung up resemble Air B&B type lodgings called particulars and Uber style taxis. A similar movement has taken place in the restaurant business with the rise of paladares. These were once restricted to limited seats within a home, but have morphed into what we experienced seated on a beautiful terrace overlooking the Vedado neighborhood of la Habana.

Chef Ramon Manuel Lopez Alarcon has created what is consistently named as one of, if not the best restaurant in Havana.

Far from the bland, uninspired cuisine we had been warned to expect in Cuba, we dined on pork tenderloin with a creamy corn and coconut sauce and grilled Caribbean spiny lobster accompanied by pilaf and salad while some of our tour mates chose lamb curry and duck confit.

Delicious as the entrées were, the deserts were outstanding. We ordered a couple to share around the table, including the house specialty chocolate tart and a cute take on rice pudding that came served like sushi.

After another illegal ride back to our casa, we were left to ponder just how this strange new brand of seemingly capitalist entrepreneurship can coexist with the official economy that remains strictly controlled.

A few years ago the government created a two-tiered currency system, which in essence keeps these new businesses separated from the state run counterparts, but the discrepancy of incomes between government employees and these new service workers has become wildly unbalanced.

Foreigners can exchange currency for convertible pesos (CUC) at a rate pegged to the dollar, which are used for almost all tourist services. In fact, we never even saw a regular peso.

The trouble with this is that CUCs are twenty-five times more valuable than the regular pesos (CUP) that most everyone else is paid in.

This means that on a good night an illegal taxi driver, a server at a private restaurant, or a casa innkeeper can make the equivalent of many months of salary for a doctor, teacher, or engineer working for the state.

The system certainly looks to be unsustainable to our eyes, and Raul Castro has promised to do away with it for some time now, but has yet to find a workable way out.

Hopefully a balance can be struck that will allow Cuba’s burgeoning tourism sector to thrive.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

A big thank you to Backroads for providing this adventure, as always, all opinions are our own.

It Feels Like Our Lives have been Erased

Photo albums spanning four and five generations, adorable baby clothes, favorite toys, and revered books held in hopes of future grandchildren, the emergent works and grades of our offspring as they strived from class to class in their studies, souvenirs gathered from across the globe, and the relics and mementos of our previous careers  have all been wiped away forever. CONTINUE READING >> 

In all of our years of travel we have been quite lucky. No bad accidents or illnesses have struck while on the road and very few mishaps. We had a couple bikes stolen from the back of our motorhome once, but that is why we carried cheap ones.

Yes, we try to take precautions. So when preparing for our recent trip to Cuba we decided to leave several things in our apartment that we normally would have carried with us. Our best computer, back up drive, some beloved antique family jewelry, and most of our credit cards stayed behind. We thought that they would be safer there.

Goes to show you never can tell. Here is what happened to our building while we were gone:

A wildfire raged through in the predawn darkness of last Tuesday and completely destroyed everything we had except what was with us in our carry-on bags and backpacks.

Because internet access was scarce, and we spent our days on our bikes with the Backroads tour that we were on, we didn’t find out until over a day later.

At that point we had to decide whether to leave behind the fantastic tour of Cuba we had so looked forward to and head back to California to see if anything could be done, or try to ignore things and stay for the duration of our trip.

Ultimately we concluded that we simply couldn’t possibly appreciate or assimilate the rest of the trip while wondering what had happened to our home, so we cut it short and flew back.

That in itself was heartbreaking because the three days that we did get to spend on the island were incredible, and yes, we will have stories about that soon.

We returned to total devastation, which put us in the odd and uncomfortable position of victims. Frequent visitors to GypsyNester.com will know that we are inclined to post ways to help when disaster strikes, perhaps sometimes too much. (BTW, there is still help needed for the hurricanes of this past summer.)

When we made our way up the hill to where our home once stood, we found the complex reduced to nothing but ash by an inferno beyond anything we could imagine. Firefighters were still on the scene pouring water on stubborn hotspots days after the blaze.

Fortunately everybody got out safely, but the stories we have heard from our former neighbors are of terrifying escapes in pitch blackness, with only minutes to spare. Some had to flee so frantically that their cars were left behind.

The speed of the fires caught everyone, including firefighters, completely by surprise and electricity was out to the entire city of Ventura. Perhaps we were lucky not to be there; avoiding the trauma, but another side of us can’t help but think that we may have been able to save a few cherished keepsakes.

Our vagabond lifestyle had already reduced our worldly possessions down to the famous 16 Boxes that we wrote about in Going Gypsy, so we are not mourning the loss of a great deal of “stuff.” Unfortunately, that means what little we did hang on to throughout our many moves were the truly important, irreplaceable, sentimental items.

Photo albums spanning four and five generations, adorable baby clothes, favorite toys, and revered books held in hopes of future grandchildren, the emergent works and grades of our offspring as they strived from class to class in their studies, souvenirs gathered from across the globe, and the relics and mementos of our previous careers  have all been wiped away forever.

Processing that loss will take some time. It may be years before we stop recalling some treasure that was once tucked away in what we thought was the safety of our closets. Or maybe that will never go away.

Meanwhile we are faced with the daily tasks of recreating something resembling a normal day-to-day life. In that sense we are better off than many, we have a place to stay temporarily and friends and family have been unbelievably helpful and supportive.

To help those who are not as fortunate, here is a good list of resources that can certainly use any and all donations.

One thing we are trying hard to embrace is graciously accepting the help that has been offered by so many, including complete strangers. Our inclination is to decline and feel that others are more worthy of aid.

A dear friend wisely advised us to stop that, not only for ourselves and facilitating our recovery, but for the people who genuinely desire to help. We should not deny them that opportunity.

With that in mind we are passing along this link to the GoFundMe page that our wonderful children have set up for us.

They felt helpless scattered across the globe in Paris, New York, and Alaska and did this as a way to connect, assist, and show their love and concern.

It is incumbent upon us to gratefully accept that assistance.

Most importantly, we say thank you.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

Bling Me Back to Graceland, Home of the King

We were married on Elvis’ birthday. Hold on there big fellah, it was just a coincidence. 

I didn’t even realize it until I woke up in a champagne haze, with the TV still blaring on our wedding night.

I knew the Fates had conspired when I half-opened one eye and saw there on the news… CONTINUE READING >>

Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee

We were married on Elvis’ birthday. Hold on there big fellah, it was just a coincidence.

I didn’t even realize it until I woke up in a champagne haze, with the TV still blaring on our wedding night.

I knew the Fates had conspired when I half-opened one eye and saw there on the news, thousands of fans lined up to worship outside the gates at the temple of Elvis, Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee.

The wedding of Elvis and Pricilla Presley
(not us)

I have a deep appreciation for all things Elvis, first and foremost his music.

The early stuff was genuinely ground-breaking, classic Rock & Roll and some of the later Vegas-era tunes were also outstanding.

The King of Rock & Roll may never have threatened to walk off with an Oscar but hey, who doesn’t like it when an Elvis movie pops up on your TV in the middle of the night or on some rainy Saturday afternoon?

The Heartbreak Hotel Restaurant at Elvis' Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee

C’mon, good clean campy 60’s fun with the star speeding his brains out on “medicine” while bursting into song every five minutes.

Hollywood’s starlet du jour fighting the Elvis magnetism, but in the end, falling head over heals for him and then joining in for a duet.

The gates to Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee

Yup, formula script writing and songwriting to die for. No academy awards here but a Spinout, Roustabout, Clambake of a good time.

The clothes, the cars, the airplanes… he was great at the whole star power lifestyle, with a hillbilly twist, and Graceland was a huge part of that.

I had wanted to see Graceland for decades, and now the end is near, I did it my way.

Graffitti on the walls outside Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee

One doesn’t just walk through the famous gates of Graceland –oh no — one must be bussed the five hundred or so feet from the ticket booth across Elvis Presley Boulevard.

Not knowing that, we just headed up the driveway like we were family.

Getting stopped gave us a chance to check out the graffiti on the wall by the gates before going across to get
tickets. People from all over the world have etched in their reminiscences, best wishes or just their moniker for posterity.

Once tickets were procured, we were properly herded aboard the bus and instructed to switch on the recorded tour in the provided headsets. Let me add here that Lance LeGault, (The A-Team’s Col. Decker) who narrates the excursion, is perfect.

His deep baritone voice took me back to the days of Rex Allen saying “All you add is love” for Purina Dog Chow.

The living room in Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee

Lance knows his stuff, he was there. He appeared in three of The King’s films, working as his stunt double and taking on minor roles. Look close, that’s Lance sitting on the side of the stage playing tambourine in the ’68 comeback special.

The tacky opulence hit the moment we walked through Graceland’s front door. These first rooms are actually the most tastefully decorated in the mansion.

The living room looked as if Liberace played the inside of I Dream of Jeannie’s bottle.

The bathroom in Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee

Across the entry hall, the dining room decor could best be described as early Southern grandma.

But hands down, the highlight of these first few rooms has to be Mama’s purple poodle bathroom. We craned our heads around the doorway as far as we could to get a good look.

Headed down the hall, past the conventional kitchen, into the heart of The King’s lair, the feel of the house shifted from southern comfort to Hillbilly Cat.

The TV room in Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee

Every living area has a bar — Elvis liked to entertain. The groovy, mod style TV / target practice (when something displeasing to The King came on one of the sets) room, all yellow and black with mirrored ceilings set the tempo.

E had heard that Lyndon Johnson had three sets to watch the news on all three networks at once so… three sets, no waiting on the firing line.

The Billard room in Elvis's Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee

The game room was magnificent, with colorful, patterned, pleated Indian-inspired fabric covered the walls, pillows AND the ceiling.

Tiffany-style lights hover over the billiard table.

Knickknacks that couldn’t possibly be conducive to a game of pool adorn the room.

The Jungle room in Elvis's Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee

Then…. the infamous Jungle Room.

The King goes green shag carpet native — on the floors and, oh yeah, the ceiling.

Tiki tacky barely begins to describe this conglomeration. Rock-A Hula! Blue Hawaii must have really rubbed off on E.

A colorfully lit fountain cascades down an entire stone wall and the furniture is unbelievably, well, let’s just call it Paradise, Hawaiian Style.

The sign on the door of Vernon Presley's office in Elvis's Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee

Leaving the inside of the house, we see Vernon Presley’s office. Vernon was Elvis’ daddy and ran the business affairs from an office right on the grounds of Graceland.

The sign on the door pretty much sums up his business attitude:

“NO LOAFING IN OFFICE STRICTLY FOR EMPLOYEES ONLY! IF YOU HAVE BUSINESS HERE. PLEASE TAKE CARE OF IT AND LEAVE. – VERNON PRESLEY”

A rather distrubing Elvis doll at Graceland, Memphis Tennessee

From the office we proceeded through a long hallway filled with memorabilia. Gold records, movie posters, photos, clothes, awards and a rather disturbing doll lined the walls.

I found it interesting that none of the three Grammy awards given to The King of Rock & Roll were for Rock & Roll.

He won them all in the Gospel Music category.

It also struck me that all of the suits, even the later Viva Las Vegas models, seemed to be tailored for the earlier, skinny Elvis.

The Grave of Elvis Presley at Graceland, Memphis Tennessee

We finished up in the Meditation Garden, which Elvis built for quiet reflection back in the sixties, but due to security issues at the Forest Hill Cemetery, now serves as the Presley family private cemetery.

Here we see the final resting places of daddy Vernon, mama Gladys, grandmother Minnie May, a memorial to twin brother Jessie Garon and, of course, Elvis.

With the tour of Graceland complete, we headed back across Elvis Presley Boulevard into the sea of swag offered to the pilgrims. In amongst the shops disguised as attractions is the car museum. Definitely worth a look.

Elvis Presley's Rolls Royce Silver Clouds

For all the jokes about his taste in decorating choices of Graceland, Elvis certainly had good taste in cars.

As Rock & Roll royalty, The King had to have a couple of Rolls Royce Silver Clouds, but also a 1975 Ferrari Dino, a ’62 Lincoln Continental, a Mercedes limo and a convertible 280 SL (for Priscilla) from back before most Americans knew what a Mercedes was.

Elvis Presley's 1973 Stutz Blackhawk

There are also two Stutz Blackhawks in the collection. One, a 1971 model, is the first Stutz ever brought into the United States. The other, a ’73, the last car that Elvis ever drove.

Of course Cadillac was his favorite and there are a couple of great ones here.

Elvis Presley's pink 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood

The ’55 pink Fleetwood makes your basic Mary Kay model look like nothing but a hound dog…

Elvis Presley's 1956 Cadillac El Dorado

…but I must say, the 1956 purple El Dorado convertible is as good as it gets. It massively screams cool and you could make at least three Toyotas from the steel in this Detroit classic.

Weird Elvis souvenirs at Graceland in Memphis Tennessee

$3000 dollar replica jumpsuit at Elvis' Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee

After browsing through several more of the “attractions” and passing up treasures like the $275 Elvis and Priscilla dolls, the $210 incredibly tacky watch, the $319 purse and flask set and a most tempting $3,300 replica jumpsuit, we decided it was time to see the Lisa Marie.

A faux airport gate entrance leads to the “Elvis Fan Detector” security checkpoint and then up the jetway to board The King’s “Flying Graceland” he named after his daughter, the Lisa Marie.

This Lisa Marie is a former Delta Airlines Convair 880, which was a state-of-the-art, long-range jumbo jet for its day and is the best preserved of the few remaining 880’s.

Elvis's plane, the Lisa Marie, at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee

Gold fixtures and sink basin in Elvis' Lisa Marie airplane at Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee

The interior is set up with a lounge area up front, then a corporate style meeting room, both with the mandatory wet bars, and finally Elvis’ private quarters aft.

The stateroom includes a king sized bed (what else?) with the FAA required seatbelt across it and a private dressing room / bathroom complete with 24 karat gold plated fixtures and sink. The gold plating is sort of a theme running throughout the aircraft, right down to the seatbelt buckles.

It was obvious, as we were leaving the grounds, that the spirit of The King never left the building. He lives on in each new generation, as embodied by the Little Elvis we passed as he headed out for a trip aboard the Lisa Marie.

Little Boy dressed at Elvis headed out to the Lisa Marie! GypsyNester.com

Thank you, thank you very much.

David, GypsyNester.com

See all of our adventures in Tennessee!

YOUR TURN: Do you love Elvis as much as I do? Would you make a pilgrimage to see the King at Graceland?

Cornish Cuisine is Ready for Its Close-up

As always in our travels, food plays an integral role in our explorations. That was even more important on our recent trip to Cornwall because it was a walking tour, so needless to say we needed all of the energy we could get… CONTINUE READING >> 

A big thank you to Country Walkers for providing this adventure, as always, all opinions are our own.

As always in our travels, food plays an integral role in our explorations. That was even more important on our recent trip to Cornwall because it was a walking tour, so needless to say we needed all of the energy we could get.

A traditional Cornish breakfast  starts out similar to our American version with eggs,  fried potatoes, bacon, and sausage, but then veers off our usual fare by adding tomato, mushrooms, and black or hog’s pudding, which is a spicy mixture of pork, suet, bread, and oatmeal or pearl barley.

Odd as some of that sounds, we grew to love it, and unlike the rest of England, it did not include beans. That was a plus in our book.

We also found that fish dishes were often offered as an alternative morning meal, and in an attempt to avoid getting bogged down with the same breakfast every day we tried a couple of them. Often it was as simple as baked cod or salmon, but an Indian style curry dish of haddock, rice, parsley, hard-boiled eggs, and butter or cream called kedgeree was a happy discovery. Still, in our minds this may have fit better as a lunch.

Speaking of lunch, a pasty, pronounced pass-tee, is the go to fast food in Cornwall, so much so that they have been given Protected Geographical Indication status. Traditional pasties consist of a sturdy crust filled with beef, potato, swede (also known as turnip in Cornwall) and onion. They are designed to be hand-held, as in hand to mouth.

We first encountered these delicious pies in the U.P. of Michigan several years ago, and learned that they were brought there by Cornish miners back in the 1800s. The origins of the pasty in Europe are unclear, but there are many mentions of similar turnovers going back centuries. No doubt Cornish bakers were not the first to think of stuffing meat and potatoes into a crust, but they certainly perfected it.

Another quick bite is the classic pork pie. If it sounds like we’re saying we’d eat our hat it’s because the shape of these little meat pies is how the chapeau got its name. They are generally served cold, like revenge, and not particularly unique to Cornwall, but we had to try one.

For an afternoon pick me up, cream tea is just the ticket. This is true across the U.K., but in the Cornish version the scone is first slathered with strawberry jam, then topped with clotted cream, which is backwards from the process that originated in Devon.

Not knowing any better, we applied our cream and jam backwards.

Although the debate about the order of application for the jam and clotted cream on a scone may never be resolved, cream teas are served and enjoyed both cream first and jam first throughout the kingdom.

Ice cream is also an enormously popular afternoon snack, especially near the beach. Cornwall is renowned for its dairy products and with one lick of a cone we knew why. The secret is that the confection is created using Cornish clotted cream, which makes for a much richer flavor and creamier consistency. We may never look at ice cream the same way again.

A Cornish dinner is a varied affair, as with most everywhere, but seafood is often the star of the show. We were lucky enough to experience this at one of the premier restaurants in the region, Rick Stein’s The Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, feasting on fresh scallops and lobster.

Afterwards we were treated to spectacular desserts featuring fresh berries, chocolate, and more of the incredible cream that Cornwall is famous for.

In addition to the bounty from the sea, Cornish food directly reflects the area’s agriculture, so lamb, potatoes, barley, peas, and cabbage are all quite common, and on our last evening we found them all together in a sumptuous stew.

Certainly nothing fancy, but perhaps the best meal of the trip and a great way to finish.

See more from our Cornwall walking tour here.

See all of our adventures in England.

A big thank you to Country Walkers for providing this adventure, as always, all opinions are our own.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

The Hippest Public Bathroom in the USA

Jackpot! A flush with greatness!

Shiny and adorned in black and green art deco (including the toilets and urinals) this luxurious loo boasts a shoeshine station and a vintage phone that calls up the front desk – just in case… CONTINUE READING >>

Built in 1910, the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville is a 5-Star accommodation that might be best known for a restroom.

The downstairs men’s room, just off of the hotel’s Capitol Grille, has been voted best bathroom in America several times in online polls.

Shiny and adorned in black and green art deco - including the toilets and urinals - the luxurious men's room at the Hermitage Hotel boasts a shoeshine station and a a vintage phone that calls up the front desk - just in case.

We strongly feel that it deserves the title.

In fact, when we lived in Nashville, we used to sneak all of our female out-of-town visitors in for a peek, adding in an extra thrill element.

It’s a little sad to us now that management has given up on trying to keep curious female observers out.

They’ve put up a plaque welcoming everyone, regardless of gender, to take a look inside.

It makes us miss the covert action of the good old days.

Shiny and adorned in black and green art deco (including the toilets and urinals), the luxurious loo boasts a shoeshine station and a vintage phone that calls up the front desk – just in case.

Because of it’s location near Nashville’s Legislative Plaza, lawmakers, lobbyists, and the press tend to hang out at the hotel – and we would assume, need to use the facilities from time to time.

The Hermitage has also played host to many US presidents, but as far as we know their only public thoughts on the public toilet was… no comment.

Talk about a flush with greatness!

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

See all of our adventures in Tennessee!

YOUR turn: Have you been to Nashville? Did you sneak in to the Hermitage’s bathroom?