Barbarella
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Today, there are three kinds of people: the haves, the have-nots, and the have-not-paid-for-what-they-haves. — Earl Wilson

Six months ago, when I first felt the rippling effects of the subprime mortgage meltdown, I began systematically forfeiting that which was dear to me but which had proved too costly to maintain.

Facials were the first to go — a disappointing but not entirely heartbreaking separation, as I had only had a few appointments at the diminutive Spa Velia, and things were not yet serious between us. The next to be sacrificed were my regular visits to Walter Todd salon — a sadder breakup, as I enjoyed sharing scandalous chitchat with Todd, and my follicles had grown fond of his conditioning rinse. I cut back on pedicures, looked to World Market instead of BevMo for wine, and I finally heeded my sister Jane’s advice to replenish my wardrobe by shopping within the sensibly priced world of Target. David and I were not at risk of losing the home we’d bought just before the bubble burst. Our bills were getting paid and our life wasn’t shabby, but it wasn’t all champagne and diamonds either.

We were making do. That is until everything went to shit. The Dow Jones became a jar of lightning bugs randomly flashing SELL, BUY, BUY, SELL. The presidential election was soon as topsy-turvy as the economy — fear, hatred, and indignation bubbled to the surface and expelled their noxious gases. The headlines and heated conversations on every corner became a pillow pressed against my face with heavy hands. My man and I agreed we needed a breath of fresh air.

David and I had recently caught a couple of episodes of the new PBS food/travel show Spain...On the Road Again, featuring one of our favorite chefs, Mario Batali (bicoastal restaurateur and the Food Network’s Iron Chef Italian); Gwyneth Paltrow (Madonna’s buddy); Mark Bittman (a food writer for the New York Times); and Claudia Bassols (a Spanish actress). The program carried us along with the carefree foursome as they hurtled across the Spanish countryside hedonistically partaking of the food, wine, and luxury spa hotels.

One episode depicted the group’s visit to the region of Rioja, celebrated for its ancient vineyards and wineries. Mario and pals stayed at Marqués de Riscal, a 150-year-old vineyard that boasts a new five-star hotel designed by Frank Gehry, the architect who is famous for his creation of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (a two-hour drive from Rioja) and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

“Now, that’s what we need,” David proclaimed.

“Sure does seem like politics and the economy are the farthest things from their minds,” I concurred.

History buffs sightsee at ancient temples and ruins. Art lovers ogle in museums and galleries. Catholics and Muslims go on pilgrimages to cathedrals and mosques. As unapologetic hedonists, David and I embark on sybaritic adventures. Rioja offered acclaimed food, wine, and an architecturally significant hotel, all set in a charming town surrounded by miles of rustic landscape. In denial of the dollar’s weakness and our own humbled bank accounts, we reserved a primo suite at the fancy-shmancy Marqués de Riscal Hotel.

The euro is treacherous for Americans, and I’m not just referring to the unfortunate exchange rate but also to the physical money itself and the dangers hiding within its polychromatic folds. For one, euros are not green. The color of grass is synonymous with cash in the States. If I have a wallet full of pink and blue, my eyes don’t transmit the message “hard-earned moola”; they impart “Monopoly money.” And though my brain knows better, I find it nearly impossible to shake the feeling that even if I lose a whole bunch of the pretty paper, it’s all a game anyway; so really, what’s the harm?

Then there’s the coin thing. Change in the States is always spare. David has actually thrown pennies in the trash (please don’t tell my frugal father; I’d never hear the end of it). But in Europe, one coin, the size of a quarter, is worth two whole euros. At the current exchange rate, that’s $2.68, or more than ten quarters’ worth in one coin. Suddenly, loose change is not to be collected for the parking meter; it’s to be saved for buying breakfast.

I tried to remind myself of all these things before arriving in Rioja. But as soon as we rounded the turn toward the small town of Elciego and I beheld Gehry’s glimmering waves of titanium amid endless vineyards of red, orange, and green, my practicality flew out the window of our rented Pepe car. I was in a magical world now, a place where any restrictions, regardless of sensibility, were not welcome.

For three nights and four days, David and I went on an opulence bender. Before we’d even checked in to the hotel, a smiling man presented us with cool, fragrant tea in clear glasses and a bowl of red and green grapes. In our suite, we were greeted by a bottle of red wine originating from the vines that could be seen outside the Seussian windows of our room.

We toured bodegas and sampled the same freshly grilled vegetables and regionally favored hake that had been eaten on the show. We walked up and down rows of vines, occasionally plucking and eating one of the surprisingly sweet, blue-colored Tempranillo grapes. Like Mario, David requested with our daily champagne breakfast an egg cooked, as the menu stated, to “exactly 65 degrees Celsius.” I opted for the fresh yogurt Gwyneth had tried and liked. While David roamed the grounds taking photographs, I indulged in a juicy grape facial at the Caudalíe Vinothérapie Spa. David, proving once again that he’s more of a diva than I, took advantage of the pillow menu, which offered a selection of ten different pillows of varying percentages of down and feather fill; there was even an option for a side sleeper pillow filled with “pure Hungarian goose down.” One evening we dined at the hotel’s restaurant and opted for the Michelin-starred chef’s 12-course tasting menu, paired with wine. It was grandeur at its most salacious, and we loved every minute of it.

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Comments

MsGrant Oct. 29, 2008 @ 3:21 p.m.

I completely understand the play money thing. I saw those shoes you bought! When I was in Italy, I was walking in Rome and stopped for a moment to get my bearings. I was looking for a shoe store. Now, I am not making this up. A handsome, well-dressed silver-haired gentleman of about 55 (give or take) asked me what I was looking for. I told him "shoes". He said "follow me". I did. He gave me his card on the way, and lo and behold, he owned a shoe store! Not just any shoe store. This was a little off the beaten bath, filled with gorgeous boots and shoes with buckles and pointy toes and oh, my God, I was in heaven. The proprietor was very persuasive without being overbearing. I spent 200 euros on a pair of shoes that to this day I only wear once in a blue moon because they are too breathtaking for words. If I got intoxicated and beat them up I would never forgive myself.

I loved your story. When my husband and I travel I always get a little melancholy toward the end of the trip. So, this coming year we were planning on going to Greece and Croatia, and we are cancelling our trip and going on a road trip to the great national parks of the Pacific Southwest and Northwest! No camping, of course. We will probably take a time out at the Red Mountain Spa and visit as many wineries as possible. AND everyone is offering great deals right now because occupancy is so low. There is so much to see in our country and road trips can be a great way to travel if you have the right companion. Plus they can be very spontaneous. Some of my most memorable trips have been last minute getaways. So get out your head scarf and those big glasses and start your engine!!

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Gretchen Oct. 29, 2008 @ 4:06 p.m.

Hey Barbarella, I've recently returned Sonoma and Napa Valley and had the most fun I've had in a long time! Prior to our wine valley trek, my guy, Bob, and I were Napa-virgins, but ready for fun. Upon arriving, we hit a couple wineries before checking in to the Wine Country Lodge. The lodge was a flash from the 60's, complete with a (non-velvet) picture of Elvis hanging over the bed. Their claim to fame is that Elvis and Marilyn Monroe stayed at the lodge. Elvis was popular in our group and we snapped pictures throughout our stay, gathering around him on the bed, just so we could say we stayed with The King. Besides Elvis, our main goal was the lobster feast at Pine Ridge Winery. When first arriving at Pine Ridge, we were given an apron and told to write our names in order to become better acquainted with others; I became, "Gretchen Go-Girl Napa Virgin." Besides tasting their scrumptious "not sold in stores" varietals, we were offered lots of yummy appetizers, while wandering the vineyards.
When the bell was rung it was time to settle in for some feasting; our table of 25 or so was tucked amongst the vineyards, grapes still on the vine. After the welcoming remarks, we were instructed to grab our wine glasses, stand up, and push our chairs back. The "chef" walked along the table carrying a huge steaming pot, complete with lobster, shrimp, corn on the cob, artichokes, and potatoes (I'm sure there were other veggies, but by now my memory is a little fuzzy). He started at one end of the table and didn't stop until he was at the opposite end, carefully dumping our goodies in the middle of the table. Huge loafs of sourdough bread were given out, and condiments of mayo and butter. With only fingers allowed, no one was shy and everyone was hungry to dive into the table of treats. The feast was tasty beyond description and we all ate until we couldn't eat anymore. We all helped with clean up by tucking in the butcher paper and plastic table cloth towards the center of the table, just in time for the waiter to roll the empty shells, husks, used napkins and whatnot up in the plastic. By the time he reached the other end of the table, the "taper" guy came along with the tape gun, securing the giant roll of our dinner remains and whisking it away for the trash. We were left was clean and beautiful table linens and hot, wet wash clothes were handed out all around. I wish every first timer could have this same fabulous experience as we did in Napa Valley, but only members and guests of members are allowed. Bob and I joined the wine club, now we'll be able to attend and invite who we want, so if you and David want to go next summer, drop me an email! It's on the books as an annual event and one not to be missed! Ciao, Gretchen PS ~ if you go to the wine country, try the Bay Leaf restaurant, but be ready for an all night dining experience, complete with the Imperial Drop! But then, that's another story!

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pete78 Oct. 30, 2008 @ 1:15 a.m.

Hola Barbarella! Que tal? Donde esta el chango que no tiene huevos?

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Barbarella Fokos Oct. 29, 2008 @ 6:07 p.m.

MsGrant, I love me some hot Italian boots. Remind me to post pictures of the pointy-toed boots I just picked up in Madrid. ;)

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Barbarella Fokos Oct. 29, 2008 @ 6:08 p.m.

Gretchen, I've always wanted to visit Sonoma and Napa, and it is next on our list. I can't wait! Thanks for the recommendation, I will definitely try the Bay Leaf.

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Barbarella Fokos Oct. 30, 2008 @ 12:52 p.m.

Oy, Pete, does that mean "Where is the [what's a chango] that has no eggs?" And by eggs, do you mean testicles? Just trying to do my part to make this newfangled communication thing work. ;)

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catty1 Oct. 30, 2008 @ 3:13 p.m.

Your trip sounds devoon! Once you've recovered and are ready to head up to northern Cal, make sure and stop by the Willow Wood Market & Cafe in Graton for dinner and the Ace Cider Pub, also in Graton, for a post dinner cider-it's right up the road from the Willow Woods and is on same property as a John Deer Dealership.

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pete78 Oct. 31, 2008 @ 12:58 a.m.

Yes...it's just past the meth lab and between 2 trailer parks. Best cider in town!

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Barbarella Fokos Nov. 1, 2008 @ 8:53 a.m.

Catty, I'll be sure to make a note, thank you for the suggestions. Speaking of fun food and drink, I hope everyone's able to come hang with me at the Tastemakers Ball tonight: www.tastemakersballsd.com. I'm thinking of wearing feathers in my hair. Again. ;)

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MsGrant Nov. 1, 2008 @ 9:22 a.m.

My husband and I are going. I'll be on the lookout for feathers.

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Barbarella Fokos Nov. 4, 2008 @ 10:11 a.m.

DON'T FORGET TO VOTE TODAY!

This has been a public announcement from Barbarella.

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ajohn5555 Nov. 15, 2008 @ 9:42 a.m.

Barbarella,

I really enjoy reading your Sassy Blog, you oose style. You deserve the best even in these tough economic times. There is no need for you to compromise by going to World Market. The next time you are heading out to buy your elixer of choice please go to BevMo!, let me know which store and what time and I will make sure you are treated to the best friendly service, largest selection and value that cannot be matched. In the unliekly event we dont have what you are looking for from the 8,000 products we stock, we will track it down and special order it just for you. We will even deliver it to you if that's what it takes. Bet you don't get that for WM!

What's more when you are planning your trip to the Napa let me know. We can hook you and David up for some special treatment.

Have a wonderful weekend Cheers! Alan

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Barbarella Fokos Nov. 15, 2008 @ 9:54 a.m.

Thanks, Alan! Nice of you to offer. We were just at BevMo this week (can't stay away from all that wine) because of the great five cent sale that's been going on over there. We picked up a bunch of Vino Verde, of the same kind we were served in Porto. And at 5 cents for every second bottle, my wallet survived the trip. Not sure where you work, but my BevMo of choice is the one in Mission Valley, and I can often be found roaming the aisles there.

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ajohn5555 Nov. 15, 2008 @ 8:01 p.m.

Barbarella you have made my weekend! Glad you enjoy the 5 cent sale, just what we all need in these tough economic times. Hope Matt Tremble (BevMo Manager)and his team took good care of you?

As for me, I am the Chief Operating Officer at the corporate HQ. Email johnsona@bevmo.com. I was visiting some wineries this afternoon and I have to tell you it was heaven, 80 degrees, blue skys and those vines dripping with fall colored leaves.... It just does not get any better than this. Let me know when you are heading our way and we will hook you up in the Napa. All part of the service!

Have a great weekend. Cheers! Alan

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rustyjb Nov. 16, 2008 @ 9:19 a.m.

Hi Barbarella,

When you go to the California Wine country if you fly to San Francisco first, be sure and stop in at Mama's Royal Cafe in Mill Valley (in the SF area) for Sunday morning brunch. My friend Caroline Dahl (an incredible boogie woogie pianist) plays there most Sunday mornings between 11 & 1.

Here's a link to her web site http://carolinedahl.com/ where you can find her calendar.

BTW, she's also an amazing fiber artis, too.

Rusty (aka Harry)

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