Nutcracker Memories

When it comes to Nutcracker, I feel like dancers, critics and dancegoers fall into one of two camps: You either love or loathe it.

I fall into the first category. I’m a sucker for most things holiday-related: twinkly lights draped all over the city, old-school Christmas carols playing at home, a pine tree in the corner of my living room—even freakin’ gingerbread lattes!

Given that, it’s probably no surprise that I love the Nutcracker, too. I’ll admit that I usually wish I could fast-forward through the party scene and skip to “Snow” and the pas de deux. And the embarrassingly outdated, stereotypical Land of Sweets characters make me cringe. But over the years, the Nutcracker has remained one of my most enduring holiday traditions. Over the past 31 years, no matter where I’ve been, or what was happening in my life, I’ve always been able to count on the familiarity and nostalgia of the Nutcracker, every Christmas season.

Like many kids, one of my earliest ballet memories was seeing City Ballet’s Nutcracker. I remember being amazed watching the tree grow, and seeing the Mouse King with his many heads.

In years following, my mom also took me to New York Theatre Ballet‘s one-hour production for kids, and the Harlem Nutcracker.

As a college student, a group of friends and I saw Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker. A couple years later, while working at the Boston Herald and doing some dance writing, I had the opportunity to review Jose Mateo‘s Nutcracker. That same season, I watched Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker again—and thought their “Snow” choreography was the best I’d ever seen. (One reason I’d love to revisit that production.)

Boston Ballet's Nutcracker

When I moved back to NYC in fall 2006, one of my “welcome home” gifts to myself was City Ballet Nutcracker tickets.

Since then, I’ve switched it up by seeing ABT’s Nutcracker on two different years—and really enjoyed Ratmansky’s fresh take on the ballet. (Like how Clara and her Nutcracker prince mirror Sugarplum and her cavalier, as they dance together in the snowy end of Act 1.)

ABT's Nutcracker

And with my own return to ballet, I’ve had the chance to perform “Snow” and “Flowers” during the last two Novembers. (We did both pieces in soft shoes, though I’d still love to dance them en pointe…)

waltz of the flowers

Last December, when I was in London, my parents surprised my best friend and me with tickets to see the Royal Ballet‘s Nutcracker. That evening at the Opera House was a big highlight of my quick trip.

royal opera house

Tonight, Evan and I are seeing City Ballet’s production. As a New Yorker, I’m a bit biased—Balanchine’s version has always remained my favorite.

NYCB Nutcracker

I was also surprised to learn that Evan has his own Nutcracker memories, about the same production. When he was a kid, his mom used to take him suit shopping, then to Houlihan’s for lunch, and then to City Ballet’s Nutcracker.

I’m excited to keep my—our—tradition going.

…now if only someone would please update the Land of Sweets! ;)

A Year of Travels with Evan

Interrupting my Spain highlights to post the type of entry that I’d never thought I’d do—mostly because every time I see something like this on Facebook, Instagram or another blog, it kind of makes me gag. So believe me. If you’re thinking, “Oh please, not one of these posts,” I totally hear you!

But anyways, here goes.

I met Evan one year ago. Within a few minutes of chatting face-to-face, I felt like we’d known each other forever. I actually thought, “Ohhhhh, so this is how you know it’s right.” At 30, it was the first time I’d ever had that reaction on a date.

Over the next 12 months, we’ve been inseparable. We’ve tried lots of new restaurants, seen ballets, met each others’ families—and traveled quite a bit.

For numerous reasons (mostly owing to the fact that we both don’t get a ton of time off), we weren’t able to take a long trip together. But somehow, we managed to squeeze in a bunch of long weekend getaways.

I didn’t share some of these photos after they happened because I wanted to really enjoy our first few trips together. I didn’t want to be snapping tons of pics, noting everything we were doing and asking strangers lots of questions. (I was, admittedly, a little afraid of letting my blogger side loose. ;) )

I was also a little superstitious that after I’d post about him, we’d break up.

Luckily, that hasn’t happened.

Now, I’m happy to look back at the getaways we’ve taken in the last year.

Like our first trip to Hudson, NY. We went on a snowy weekend in mid-January, just two months after our first date.

We stayed at Thyme in the Country, a small, eco-friendly B and B on a farm outside town, that Evan thought looked perfect for us.

Thyme in the Country, Hudson, NY |

Thyme in the Country, Hudson, NY |

It turned out to be exactly the kind of place we were both looking for. The owners, Mary and Bill, were lovely, and fed us very well: homemade sausages, cheese and dates, ginger tea.

Their living room had a working fireplace, where Evan and I cozied up to escape the chilly weather.

Thyme in the Country, Hudson, NY |

We loved walking around the snowy farm.

H & E, January 2014

I got a kick out of seeing cows so close up!

Cows at Thyme in the Country, Hudson, NY |

And even let Evan bring me right up close to the chickens. (Staying with one in Guatemala must have helped me with my fear of birds!)

Chickens at Thyme in the Country, Hudson, NY |

We spent two afternoons strolling around Hudson, a small, industrial town that’s being revitalized, thanks to an influx of artists and city refugees.

Hudson, NY |

On our first night there, we shared an amazing dinner at Fish & Game, a restaurant run by Zac Pelaccio, who decamped from NYC to Hudson to be closer to local farmers and suppliers. The restaurant just serves a tasting menu based on what’s available and in season. Everything we ate that night was great: eggplant with sea urchin, kimchi with turkey, venison sausage over polenta. The cooking was exciting and inventive.

Plus, Fish & Game, itself, was one of the most romantic restaurants I’ve eaten at. The layout has two-seaters around the perimeter, where couples dine sitting next to each other. I find that much cozier, not to mention better for chatting. I don’t know why more restaurants haven’t adopted that seating plan!

Evan and I actually kept the menu from that dinner, to frame as a memento of our first trip together.

In February, we headed north for a four day weekend. We drove to Vermont, stopping in Brattleboro for a quick bite, before settling into Pond House Inn, in Brownsville. This was another B&B on a farm, run by a retired teacher named Gretel.

We arrived on another snowy weekend.

Pond House Inn, Brownsville, VT |

Pond House Inn, Brownsville, VT |

Our room was pretty chilly, and we could feel the home’s age. Yet, I loved the canopy bed in our room…

Pond House Inn, Brownsville, VT |

…the European accents (like this striped wallpaper!)…

Pond House Inn, Brownsville, VT |

…and all the travel magazines and New Yorker back issues scattered around the place.

Evan and I had grand plans of going dog sledding and snowshoeing, but the weather was less than ideal: steady, freezing rain. Instead, we bunkered down for a good part of the day. In the afternoon, we drove up to the Norwich Inn, which has a microbrewery on premise….

Flight at Norwich Inn, VT |

…and returned for dinner at the B&B. Greta was a fabulous cook, and made us a butternut squash lasagna (with delicate, homemade noodles!) and poached pears for dessert.

The next day, we drove down to the Berkshires. I hadn’t been before, and we thought it would get little closer to home. (Though it actually translated into more time in the car.)

We stayed at Porches, a North Adams inn.

Porches Inn, North Adams, MA |

It was eclectic with class…

Porches Inn, North Adams, MA |

Porches Inn, North Adams, MA |

…and even had a cute cat hanging around!

Cat at Porches Inn, North Adams, MA |

North Adams is home to MASS MoCA, the contemporary art museum.

MASS MoCa, North Adams, MA |

But since Evan and I are both not museum people, we skipped it, in favor of antiquing.

Porches had an outdoor hot tub, which would have been muy romantico—were it not filled with kids the whole time! I was actually surprised at how many families were at the inn, that weekend. Breakfast, the next morning, which could have been a quiet, couple’s affair, was like eating in a daycare center.

After that trip, I started blogging more about my adventures with Evan.

Like our less-than-24-hours in Philly for his b-day in March. (Again, another weekend foiled by freezing rain!)

And the overnight getaway to New Hope, PA, in April, when we needed a break from NYC life…

evan feeding sheep

…the week at the LBI beach house with friends…


…the summer weekend in DC.

H and E, DC

Most recently, we were back in New Hope, to celebrate the wedding of Karen and Steve, two of our closest friends.

Heather and Evan

We have a December trip to New Orleans planned, too!

Evan is more than another travel companion, though. He’s also my everyday companion, my up-for-anything companion, my breaks-the-tension-with ridiculousness companion, my puts-up-with-me-when-I’m-tired-and-hungry companion. And that, I think, makes me one lucky girl.

La Casa de las Chimeneas: Our Picos de Europa Inn

We didn’t have an easy time finding lodging in the Picos de Europa—both before or during the trip!

We wanted to stay in one of the mountain villages, not too far from a good trail. Our ideal place was an independent inn that was both rustic and nice. Guidebooks offered few recommendations. Online searches lead us down a rabbit hole of useless links.

After spending way too many hours evaluating every inn in the Picos, Mal finally came across La Casa de las Chimeneas, via Rough Guides. The inn is located in Tudes, a village that appeared close to Potes, a town that seemed to be a jumping off point for exploring the Picos. Plus: They had cats all over their website!

Needless to say, we were sold.

The route from the caves of Monte Castillo to Tudes was long and winding. As the sun set, we drove through tiny villages at the base of the mountains—some comprised of just a few houses! Tudes, where we were headed, was up a long, mountainous road. By the time we reached it, the sun was long gone and we arrived in total darkness.

La Casa de las Chimeneas was at the entrance of the village. Tony, a Brit who owns the place with his wife, Lucia (from Santander), showed us to our apartment.

Las Estaciones, La Casa de las Chimeneas |

It turns out that he lived in that house, with his family, until a few years ago, when they moved upstairs from the pub they opened on premise.

The bedrooms were cute and cheery, with a rustic-meets-Ikea aesthetic.

Bedroom at La Casa de las Chimeneas |

Bedroom at La Casa de las Chimeneas |

You could definitely tell that the building was built a while back. The floors creaked. Rooms and staircases were quite narrow. (I felt like I was going to wipe out every time I set foot on the stairs!) Still, it was comfy and cozy.

Staircase at La Casa de las Chimeneas |

The next day, we were able to get a much better look at Tudes and Chimeneas. The inn is actually comprised of several buildings: the one we were staying in, the adjoining bar, a few more across the road.

La Casa de las Chimeneas |

La Casa de las Chimeneas |

I loved the wooden trim and stonework, both outside our house…

The porch at Las Estaciones, La Casa de las Chimeneas |

…and in…

Inside apartment 8, La Casa de las Chimeneas |

…as well as on the historic church, across the road.

Stone church, Tudes, Spain |

We also learned that Tudes has all of 30 inhabitants!

…though that’s not too surprising, when you see it from above.

Tudes, Spain |

Tudes won Cantabria’s Village of the Year award in 2010, which came with grant money to restore some of the buildings.

And as for that pub on the premise? I have to admit, we were grateful it was there! There were no other bars or restaurants in town. We ended up dining there two nights in a row.

The pub at La Casa de las Chimeneas |

On the evening we arrived, we were so tired from driving and being out all day, that we had wine and dinner there. The food was basic (spaghetti, salads, omelettes), but hearty and comforting. And the next day, after hiking in the Picos, we were way too tired to go anywhere else! Photos from that (awesome) hike to come, next. :)

Loredo and the Caves of Monte Castillo

On our fourth day in Spain, we left the Bilbao area and headed west to Asturias. We’d heard great things about that part of the country: that it was one of Spain’s greenest regions, with gorgeous landscapes and few people. Plus, some of the prettiest northern Spain images we’d come across on Pinterest were of Asturias. How could we not swing through there?

We were headed for the Picos de Europa, the dramatic mountain range that spans across Asturias, Cantabria and Castile-León. But to break up the drive, we decided to stop at a few places along the way.

Ever since we spent a few hours near the coast, at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, I was craving a little more beach time.

Even if it were just an hour or two.

That’s how we ended up stopping in Loredo, a small coastal town. It’s known as a surfing and resort area, though it looked like it had seen better days. Perhaps because it wasn’t high summer, but we didn’t feel vibrant energy in the town. Much of it looked like it could use a little sprucing up.

We stopped for lunch at El Pescador, a seafood restaurant near the water.

El Pescador, Loredo, Spain |

We sat outside and ordered the local beer, which was definitely the best brew of the trip…

Raquera |

P and M, El Pescador |

…and had huge platters of grilled fish. The food was a bit pricey, but everything was fresh and well-cooked.

Afterwards, we walked to the beach.

M & P, Loredo Beach, Spain |

Since the day was overcast and cool, there was no one out sunbathing.

Loredo, Spain |

Still, we couldn’t resist kicking off our shoes and dipping our toes in the water.

Loredo, Cantabria, Spain |

Our next stop was the Monte Castillo caves, in Puente Viesgo. We’d only heard of them that morning, while looking at our guidebook, and were intrigued. They’re a UNESCO World Heritage site, discovered in 1903, where you can see ancient cave paintings. Two of the four caves are open to the public.

We arrived at the El Castillo cave late in the afternoon, in time for the final tour of the day.

Cuevas del Monte del Castillo, Spain |

I’ll admit—I was a bit skeptical while we were waiting for it to begin. We were waiting in what could best be described as the “cave lobby”—an area with informational signs—from where we could see another group standing inside the actual cave, listening to a guide speak. Was this the whole cave tour?

El Castillo Cave, Cantabria, Spain |

Once ours started, we soon realized that you go through a doorway that leads much deeper into the cave. Our guide, who relayed the information in both English and Spanish (though in much more detail in Spanish) walked us past intricate stalactites, and pointed out hand prints and animal paintings on the walls. (We weren’t permitted to take photos inside the cave.)

After reemerging from the cave, we departed Puente Viesgo…

Puente Viesgo, Cantabria, Spain |

…and headed on to the Picos.

A Few Hours in Bilbao, Spain

Though we stayed three days in the Bilbao area, we spent very little time in the actual city. Friends who’d visited Bilbao before were neutral on it. The city hadn’t wowed anyone, but they all felt it’s worth exploring for a day or so.

And that’s about all the time we had for it—the afternoon following our visit to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. (And that impromptu dinner on our first night in Spain.)

Bilbao’s biggest claim to fame is the Guggenheim. My mom and E actually wanted to go into the museum. Mal, Peter and I were eager to check out the Frank Gehry architecture and outdoor sculptures, but not necessarily the galleries. (I’m not a huge museum fan. If I only have a short time in a city, I’d rather wander around outside, unless there’s an exhibit I’m dying to see.)

The Guggenheim, Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain |

I have mixed feelings about Jeff Koons’ art—some of it feels a little too earnest or overdone. But I loved Puppy, which stands guard right outside the Guggenheim.

Puppy, by Jeff Koons; The Guggenheim, Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain |

I couldn’t stop talking pictures of it.

Puppy, by Jeff Koons; The Guggenheim, Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain |

Puppy, by Jeff Koons; The Guggenheim, Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain |

It’s funny. Koons’ Split-Rocker was outside Rockefeller Center (where I work!) all summer, and I barely looked at it. Yet, this freaking dog captivated me.

Puppy, by Jeff Koons; The Guggenheim, Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain |

As did the Guggenheim’s metallic exterior.

The Guggenheim, Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain |

The Guggenheim, Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain |

While my parents went inside, Mal, Peter and I walked around town.

Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain |

The streets near the museum seemed to be a big shopping area, with lots of clothing and shoe stores. (Both international retailers like H&M and Hugo Boss, as well as local chains.) We ducked into a few, got coffee, then wandered back to the Guggenheim.

By that point, we were hungry and tired from a long day in the sun. (Hence, the lack of photos!)

Since it was around 6:30 and too early for dinner, we headed to Diputacion, a hopping street with bars, restaurants and lots of outdoor seating. We settled into El Globo, a cozy bar for pintxos and raciones. (Pintxos are small bites, just a tad larger than your standard canape or amuse bouche, eaten with drinks—usually the Basque wine txakoli—in bars. Raciones are larger plates.)

This was the first time I saw the cute little beer glasses that are served at pintxo bars, along with pintxos, themselves, looking all pretty, lined up on the bar. Those were some tasty bites!

Pintxos and beer at El Globo, Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain |

…and just a preview of what was to come a week later, in San Sebastian, Spain’s pintxos capitol.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

One Basque Country place that all of us wanted to visit was San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.

It’s a little chapel, dedicated to Saint John, that sits atop 231 steps, on a tiny island that’s connected to the mainland by a long stone bridge. Before going to Spain, I found images of the place to be so enchanting! I even posted a photo of it, the day I departed for Spain.

My family and I referred to it as “The Great Wall”—because it kind of looks like it!

…also, we weren’t sure how to pronounce “Gaztelugatxe.” (Once in Basque Country, we learned it sounds like “gatz-uh-leg-at-tay.”)

I really enjoyed the ride from Hotel Ellauri to Gaztelugatxe. The last part of the drive was along the coast—and you know how much I love being by the beach. Seeing the small coastal towns and smelling the salty air just made me happy.

I was surprised at how hopping the the parking area for Gaztelugatxe was. We’d barely seen people, over the previous few days, and I didn’t think this would be such a popular attraction.

But then, they wanted to see this, for themselves, just as I did.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Spain |

From the parking lot, we walked down a steep, paved ramp to a lookout point. It had the perfect view of Gaztelugatxe.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain |

The coast, near San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain |

After snapping a ton of pics, we headed down a narrow, winding, rocky, dirt path to get to the base of the bridge. I was surprised that there wasn’t an easier way down, given the amount of people (including kids and older folks!) who make the trip. But I suppose that kind of overprotectedness is what you get used to from living in the States. ;)

Finally, we reached the bridge.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain |

We chose the hottest point of the day to walk up the steps. It was high noon and not a cloud in the sky.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain |

Walking up San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain |

The climb wasn’t bad, at all—just hot! We stopped a few times on the way up, to sip water and enjoy the views.

At one point, we passed a wedding party coming down the stairs. The bride looked as if she’d walked down stone steps in a gown and stilettos every day. But I really wanted to applaud one of the older women in the group. She’d taken off her heels and was walking down barefoot!

Soon, we reached the chapel at the top.

The chapel of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain |

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain |

After refueling with granola bars and water, we headed back down the stairs.

M & P at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain |

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain |

Near the bottom, there was another staircase that lead down to a rocky beach.

The beach at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain |

The beach at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain |

By the time we made our way back up the rocky, dirt path, to the parking lot, we were sweaty and hungry—and very much in need of cervezas. Luckily, there was a bar/restaurant that served that, and pintxos. We chowed down on a few types of tortillas and toasted the day…before heading on to Bilbao.

Meme and E, post-hike

Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain

Gorbea Natural Park was one big reason we stayed at Hotel Ellauri. In our desire to detox from city life, we wanted easy access to nature, and Ellauri sits near the edge of the park.

On our second day in Spain, we went hiking in Gorbea. Kepa and Randa, Ellauri’s innkeepers, were very knowledgable about the trails. They gave us several options, ranging in length from two to eight hours. We weren’t quite feeling an all-day hike, so we chose a nearby trail that would take an hour and a half to ascend, and an hour to descend.

After breakfast, we went to Zeanuri’s tiny store for fruit, bread and cheese. That afternoon, we drove through the tiny town of Areatza and up a narrow, winding road to the trailhead. We parked in the Pagomakurre area, then started the Arraba-Kargaleku trek.

Hiking in Gorbea Natural Park |

It was the perfect day for hiking—sunny, yet cool.

Hiking in Gorbea Natural Park |

The gravelly path made for pretty easy walking; the ascent wasn’t very steep.

Gorbea Natural Park |

Along the way, we passed a few other hikers, most who were on their way down. That was one nice thing about the trail—there was never a point when we were hiking alongside or behind anyone.

Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain |

About 20 minutes into the hike, we came across a herd of grazing goats. Each one had a bell tied to his neck. The collective sound was a mellifluous symphony.

Goats at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain |

Shortly after, we came across some cows. They, too, had bells around their necks, though of a different size from the goats. They created their own melody.

Cow at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain |

Cows grazing at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain |

Farther along the way, horses grazed. Of course, they had their own bells.

Horse at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain |

Horses at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain |

I’d never hiked a trail with so many animals—and such musical ones! The sounds of the different bells, plus the green landscape, were incredibly soothing and relaxing.

After about an hour and a half of hiking, we reached what appeared to be the summit of our trail.

Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain |

We stopped for a snack…

M & P at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain |

…and just enjoyed the view.

Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain |

Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain |

As we ate, we realized that hikers were coming over the ridge. It was possible to go from summit to summit. We asked how far to the next one; it would take about an hour and a half.

We debated whether to continue on. Peter was game, but Mal and I weren’t sure we were up for walking another 4+ hours. (There and back, plus returning to our car.)

So we took a few more photos…

M&P, Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain |

H&M, Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain |

…before hiking back down.