Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Turnaround Twelve Hours in Chicago

At 4:30 am the train pulled into Chicago’s Union Station, fourteen hours late, meaning an unexpected and weary day in Chicago until the next train east at 9:30 pm. Not surprisingly, my traveling companion and I were exhausted and uncomfortable. We had been assured for more than ten hours that Amtrak would put us up in a hotel and rebook our travel home. Being hyper vigilant about bed bugs I always check the online Bed Bug Registry prior to booking accommodations. Blurry-eyed (without enough reading glasses to read everything on my cell-phone screen), very hungry (I ran out of food around seventeen hours prior), and grumpy to my core, I scanned bed bug reports and, sure enough, the hotel we had been comped had fourteen bug alerts. I start Googling the hotels that showed zero reports and they were all fully booked.

My companion was equally exhausted, but less concerned about bed bug contamination than I was so we were at odds. Finally I proclaimed that she could go to the hotel without any luggage (she didn't), but that I was going to stay at the station and wait the forty-five minutes until the lounge for sleeping-car travelers opened up. I felt like I was on a camping trip where it starts pouring, the tent leaks, and you’re having car problems….you are so uncomfortable you just want it to all go away (especially since the expectation was that we would be spending a whole night (instead of a partial morning) in a comfortable hotel bed (sans bugs). Expectations mixed with no sleep and low-blood-sugar made for tender and trigger-cranky emotions.

My companion decided to fly home due to work commitments (our new scheduled arrival home was a minimum 24-hours later than originally planned.) My day had grim prospects. I thought likely I would spend it curled up on a stained, lumpy love seat in the windowless lounge room of Union Station, dozing on and off, hopefully not visibly drooling. I didn’t have motivation for much else, but the love seat was less than appealing, so I mustered my last shred of energy and headed off to Whole Foods, not far from the train station. This was slow-shopping in the extreme. My daze was reminiscent of how I used to feel after working a twelve-hour shift all night at the hospital. I was working hard at concentrating and was slightly aware that I looked like someone on drugs or newly homeless (after three and a half days on a train from California I was doing a good imitation). Then I slowed down even more when I realized I had nothing to do for twelve hours. S-l-o-w shopping. If my companion had stayed she would have killed me.

After stocking for two more full days of travel, I settled into the cafe area and ate, which fortified me enough to think about spending my day outside of the station.

I knew I would be a horrible companion in that I needed every ounce of reserve to function and couldn’t expend any on niceties or social interaction, so I did not contact the handful of people I know in Chicago. It was sunny, with a slight breeze and perfect temp, so off I went to explore. Since not all my cylinders were firing, I took a water taxi to Navy Pier, where I boarded a larger boat for an architectural tour of Chicago. This was the perfect solution for the worn-down traveler: I was sitting outside, soaking in the sun, but learning things about the “windy” city: the bridge designs are from Paris, the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) can sway three feet in any direction at upper stories; and, the Haymarket Riot, a tragic event in labor history resulting in the hanging of union organizers, took place in downtown Chicago.

After the informative and, for me, therapeutic boat ride, I wandered around the shoreline and city beach, then made my way towards a day spa where I had booked a massage. Exploring the neighborhoods on the way, I stumbled onto Local Root, a local-foods restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating in the Streeterville neighborhood of the city. I had plenty of time before my appointment, so I savored a full, fresh meal for the first time in four days. While vegetarians will find a number of things to eat, the menu is heavy on meat and fish. My salad of local greens and pickled onions was delicious (the pickled onions were especially good) and went well with my perfectly cooked grass-fed burger. Chicago’s tap water tastes heavily of chlorine and has other known contaminants in it, so I would recommend ordering bottled water (although I would rather see restaurants doing their own in-house filtration of tap water).

Next stop on my grim-day-turned-fabulous, was the Allyu Spa located along the Riverwalk in the River North area. The large, airy, Buddhist-inspired day spa offers a range of massage and spa therapies as well as a far-infrared sauna. There is a meditation/relaxation sanctuary where you can wait before and after your therapy, as well as outside seating along the river. From start to finish Allyu was what this weary traveler needed.

The sad love seat where I might have spent my day was still at the train station when I returned, waiting for some other desperate traveler. My message to them—you have options.

Full Disclosure: no businesses listed here had any knowledge that I would be writing about them and provided zero comp benefits.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Driving Green in Paris and More

A cross between Zipcar and the successful citywide bike rental programs like Velib in Paris and Citybike in NYC, Autolib lets drivers rent electric cars at stations dotted around Paris. The brainchild of French billionaire, Vincent Bolloré, the pay-by-the-hour Autolib uses 100% electric “Bluecars". Drivers sign up for annual memberships and then pay by the 30-minute use.

Hugely successful in Paris, Bolloré has expanded the service into Lyon and Bordeaux and has announced that a program using red cars will soon be available in London.

Stateside there are whispers that the program may come to Los Angeles and Indianapolis—stay tuned!

* Photos by Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz)

Monday, December 1, 2014

The BEST Gluten-Free Pizza—Hiding in Edinburgh

This writer found the best gluten-free he has had in a place that is not thought of when it comes to fine pizzas: Edinburgh, Scotland. However, this is exactly where it was found in the La Favorita Pizzeria and Restaurant on 325 Leith Walk, Edinburgh.

If a really good pizza is one of those foods that is missed or craved above all else while maintaining a gluten-free diet, then look no further than to this bustling Italian eatery and its delicious gluten-free pizzas. The majority of the meals served at La Favorita have a gluten-free option as well as on all of the pizzas. The only thing that is lacking is the ability to settle into your pizza with the company of a fine gluten-free brew, but they do offer a cider and of course a wide range of wines that should keep any appreciator of alcohol happy.

For gluten-free beers, check out Green's, a dedicated producer of gluten- and wheat-free beer in the UK.

Guest blog post by Kit Norton

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Gluten-Free Delights in the Shadow of Budapest's House of Terror

Budapest’s House of Terror sits on Andrassy utja (Budapest, Andrássy út 60, 1062 Hungary), and no matter where the sun is in the sky, it throws a long shadow. After visiting the building that has represented fear, secrecy, and pain for most of the twentieth century, do not be surprised if you hear your stomach growl and feel a gnawing hunger.

For those who are following a gluten-free diet (and for those who are not) you are in luck. Across the street at Andrassy ut 57 (Budapest, Andrássy út 57, 1062 Hungary) you will find the best gluten-free bakery in Budapest. Corso Cafe will not be found on any travel forums online, and even a Google search for it will not turn up satisfactory results. It is a small cafe, serving assorted teas and coffees along with many wheat pastries on display. However, you need only ask the man or the woman that run the bakery for “glutenmentes” and a bin will be brought out for you to peruse the selection.

The woman, who is also the baker, speaks English making it easier to ascertain which breads are best and what is in each goody. She bakes chocolate and coconut gluten-free spiral pastries, nine gluten-free baguettes, and whole loaves of both white artisan bread and a whole-grain version. All of these are divine. I would suggest making several stops back at the bakery over your visit to Budapest because it is very unlikely that one trip will satiate the thirst for freshly baked gluten-free treats. Be warned that getting there early in the day will not guarantee that gluten-free bread is available as she bakes a certain amount each day and no more. She also starts the gluten-free baking process later in the day than the regular breads, and with this in mind getting there around 2 PM (1400) is usually a good time to pick up bread. Enjoy!

Guest blog post by Kit Norton