In this edition, you can read notes on our recent family visit to Spain during the Thanksgiving week holiday. We visited Madrid, Toledo, Granada, Seville, Cordoba and Barcelona. We traded sun for cooler weather, some rain but less crowds and lower prices. We were limited by school holidays but would recommend this trip for late October or mid to late May. This week there was a picture in the Economist of an interior courtyard in the Alhambra without a caption. The kids recognized it. I told them that is the reason we travel – so that when they grow up, they can read an article in the Economist with pictures around the world without captions that you are expected simply to recognize when you see them.
For our 15th anniversary Karen and I went to Madison Square Garden to see Billy Joel in concert. I paid $300 a ticket to look at the person’s cellphone in front of me being held up to see the stage. I’m sure that a lot of people there never bothered to see a moment of the show with their own eyes. Karen saw him in concert about 50 years ago; then he was jumping all over the place onstage. This time he hardly got up from his chair till the last few minutes of the show.
Last year we had big fights in the house over iPads and we would negotiate constantly over how much the kids could use it. We had cut off cable TV and were trying to get the kids to do more homework. We also found them grouchy, foul-mouthed from all the 4 letter words in the video games, and antisocial. As in “Get away from me” every time we’d approach a kid on the sofa or “I’m not hungry” when it was mealtime and then eating and running back to the game. This year we simply left the iPads at my office and tried keeping the phones in a lockbox. After a few gruesome days of hell and retaliation (ie: unplugging my computer and wifi and hiding my medicine), things settled down and now the kids are much more calm, creative and in a better mood.
So Marriott says that up to 500 million people were affected by the hacking into its reservations system. Does that make sense? Are they saying that almost 1 out of 10 inhabitants of the planet stayed in a Starwood hotel during the past several years?
Last month there was a freak snowstorm in New York that delayed flights for hours. We were caught in it on the way to Spain. If you were unlucky enough to be on the El Al flight to Tel Aviv, consider this: The airline doesn’t fly on the Sabbath in observance of Jewish law. Many Hassidic Jews were on the plane and they worried aloud they’d be in the air during the sabbath due to the delay in departure. The pilot said he was heading back to the gate. Next thing you know he took off into the air. (Some passengers filed suite afterward claiming they were “kidnapped.”) About an hour into the flight, the pilot announced that they wouldn’t make it to Tel Aviv in time so they would land the plane in Athens. So now a planeful of people are dropped Friday afternoon in Athens. They airline only booked 75 hotel rooms and couldn’t round up enough kosher food for all the people who needed it. The plane continued to Israel Saturday night. My understanding of Jewish law is that if a plane is in the air, it should go to its destination but then the religious observers would be stuck in the Tel Aviv airport for 25 hours, so I guess they figured it was the lesser of the two evils. I also can’t understand why they would inconvenience all the non-Jews and non-observant Jews on the plane with dumping them in a foreign country for 24 hours without any real notice. Compensation: a free ticket from Tel Aviv to Europe. I think they should reconsider their policies. Would you want to fly on that airline on a Thursday night flight on that route?
In 1988 I registered as a Republican to vote for Bob Dole in the primary against George Bush, who I thought at the time was an anti-semite. All these years later, I have a real softness for George Bush as a class act, the kind that they don’t make any more. He was a person who worked for the good of his country. Truly America First…before himself. He was a better president than people gave him credit for at the time and we could use more presidents like him today.
My takeaways from the 2018 midterm US elections: Moderate Democrats won, ultra-liberals lost. They came close but they still lost. Rural areas punch above their weight due to the US Constitution which favors rural America and they vote Republican, but over the long term it is not a future for the Republican party because younger people are moving away from these rural areas toward cities and jobs and because the country as a whole is becoming more diverse. Still, for the short to medium term future Democrats must have a strategy for winning rural votes or the Senate will remain Republican territory because each state gets two senators no matter how small the population is, although it should be noted that the Democrats did better in some rural areas this year than immediately noticed. Some nutty ideas: (1) forced or incentivized resettlement of Democratic voters to rural areas; (2) splitting blue states into two in order to get more senators; (3) pushing harder to get more people the right to vote and to get them to show up. For instance, in Florida 1.5 million felons will get the right to vote. Many of them are Black and will vote Democratic. Many of the state’s elections are won or lost by less than 100,000 votes. In 2020, Florida will become a more Democratic state. What I don’t know is how many Puerto Ricans who came over from Puerto Rico voted in Florida this year. They should hate Trump for how he handled the hurricane in Puerto Rico but they are not known to go out and vote. Obviously not enough of them have voted yet. Actually, someone answered my question. The Puerto Ricans did vote, it’s just that for every one who immigrated, there are even more white Republican retirees moving into the state to cancel them out.
The first two options above were an attempt at humor, but the third is important. There is a big debate in the Democratic party as to whether or not the above strategy is the best one for the party, since a good number of candidates who tried to run as centrists lost. One persuasive article by Steve Phillips in the New York Times on November 12 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/12/opinion/democrats-midterms-progressives.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage says that mobilizing voters who don’t usually vote along with appealing to regular voters is the key – the strategy is more focused on voter mobilization than on voter persuasion. Ultimately, Trump was elected because too many minority voters didn’t vote on election day and some of them even voted for him. I don’t suppose that will happen again in 2020. I don’t think Trump ever expected to win in the first place and I don’t think he expects to win re-election; that’s an important reason people in high circles are concerned to know what Trump was promised by the Saudis and the Russians to look the other way. He seems to be more focused on feathering his and his family’s nest for the future than representing the interests of his country. If he gets all kinds of goodies after he leaves office, it will be noticed but yet hard to prove anything criminal about it. Just look at all those donations to the Clinton Foundation after he left the presidency. For what, you might wonder.
I don’t know what Mueller has from his investigation but I expect him to be clever enough to have passed the buck around to other prosecutors who will continue to haunt Trump if Mueller is restricted by the new attorney general. So far he has been doing that. The Democratic House will certainly be looking for his tax returns and investigating him up the wazoo. The odds are that very little will get done during the next two years. This is good if you don’t like tariffs because most of Congress is against it. It might be good if you are from a blue state and want your state and local income tax deduction restored; the removal of that deduction hurt Republicans in the last election cycle because it hurt people who might otherwise vote for Republicans and who did not benefit from the tax cut which was Trump’s signature achievement that he hoped people would support. So far, based on what I’ve seen, I don’t see a case for impeachment. Hush money to shut up women he had affairs with doesn’t rise to that level. The Russian story so far seems that the Russians wanted him to win and reached out to his campaign to help, but so far there is nothing that ties Trump to all this swirling around him. Trump wanting to build a tower in Moscow while he was running for president (in case he lost, which was at the time what was expected)– interesting but also not impeachable. There is probably more, but so far we haven’t seen it.
I got a call from a supreme court justice in the Middle East who said that now is the time for the US to show that they stand for some principles in the world, and not just that everything is for sale. Trump’s whitewash of the Khashoggi episode has caused real harm to the image of the US around the world.
Usually I like to think that the Saudis think very strategically and long term, but I’m not so sure they are doing it now. MBS has mortgaged the interests of Saudi Arabia to the Trumps and, while this might benefit him in the short term, it’s going to be really bad for the Saudis once Trump gets replaced. The same goes for Netanyahu and the long term damage he is causing to Israel, which I will discuss below. The current nationalist right-wing populist rage is a fad fed by the presence and loudness of Fox News and the last gasp of a dying generation; the long term trends in the US are toward a more diverse and liberal populace.
When the Saudi crown prince MBS fought some kind of war in Yemen, for the rest of the world it had all the interest of a dog bites dog story. When he locked up many of the leading businessmen of the country and shook them down for money, people winced but figured it was probably coming to these people who collectively had gotten billions from the country’s treasury. And it played well home at home with his domestic audience. When he kidnapped a sitting prime minister of Lebanon, it looked like a foolish antic of a young prince and at least there was no real harm done. It didn’t look good, but you could give him a second chance. But taking a US resident who writes newspaper columns in a major US paper and sawing him into pieces in a consulate in another country (Turkey) is really naughty. Of course it would have the benefit of scaring the shit out of any other dissident in the world and I’m sure that people like Trump and Putin wish they could do that all day long (although Putin is probably smart enough not to do it inside a consulate of a western country), but it’s not good for business. I have no doubt that Congress is going to act on this and large businesses are going to increasingly stay clear of that country because they do not want to be investment partners with what they will see as a reckless ruler that can bring them bad publicity, has shown that he is not willing to play by rules that govern world order or respect rule of law in his own country to protect investment, and who thus is viewed as a destabilizing influence in the world theater.
The obvious conclusion is that the King of Saudi Arabia ought to reign him in as the rest of the royal family cannot after having been neutered. And that of course is the root of the problem; the entire country of Saudi Arabia has been wrapped up in this one man because there is nobody able to stop him and the King is out of it at this point and anyone who could talk to him (even his wife) is reportedly barred from seeing him by MBS who controls his security. Ultimately, his economic program is going to fail because he can’t do it on his own and money is going away from that country, not toward it — according to recent statistics as to foreign direct investment. He’s going to learn that even kissing ass to the Saudis for business purposes has its limits when the cost of association becomes too high and affects other business income. This is too bad because everyone (except maybe Iran) would like to see the country succeed. Success is the best promise for that country’s future. MBS got the job because people around him thought he could change the country’s economy. But like Tom Friedman recently wrote, you can’t fix stupid. What Saudi is ever going to trust his country with this guy in charge of it when they invite him to come home and talk or even just come into the consulate? Would I want to go to a reception at a Saudi consulate and worry that they might want to harm me for writing this Global Thoughts column? Senator Lindsey Graham is correct when he says two months in a row that MBS is finished in a figurative sense– nobody will trust anything he says or have anything to do with him now – would you as a CEO want your photo out there with this guy? Of course he isn’t going anywhere, but he is damaged goods now no matter how much the Saudis pay off lobbyists to say otherwise. The recent prominent article by Karen Woodhouse of the Wall Street Journal questioning the US’s long term interests in Saudi Arabia is a yellow light for that country – she has been friendly to the Saudis and the country doesn’t need those kinds of articles in print after spending millions to buy off virtually every opinion columnist they could find in the US. Even the Washington Post had an unusual article stating that virtually every person writing opinions about Saudi Arabia in major media takes their money and questioning how much you could expect to find objectivity in the press on policy toward that country. That unusual truth-in-news article appeared in print because one of the richest people in the world owns the newspaper, he doesn’t need the Saudis, and it was his columnist that was killed by the Saudis.
What offends me is that consulates are meant to be places of refuge to seek the safety of your country. They are by diplomatic convention sacred spaces like churches. Sovereign immunity wasn’t intended to include butchery of citizens within the walls of consulates. Kings are not supposed to be thugs. This really crosses the line and it lowers the prince to the level of a petty guy who will do savage things to those who cross him. It also debases the honor of Saudi Arabia that the sacred ground of its consulate would be used for such purposes. When there are no checks and balances, you get to think you can do this kind of stuff. In today’s world, everything is seen and recorded. There are no secrets for long and it was hubris to think he could get away with this. The Russians couldn’t even pull off a murder in the UK with all the technology out there to discover the plot, and they must be sulking over how the good ole days are gone.
Now let me just stop for a moment and mention that had MBS succeeded in getting this guy within the borders of Saudi Arabia and then doing whatever he wanted to him, nobody would be saying anything. Saudi Arabia has been doing this for years, according to a rather revealing recent oped piece by David Ignatius in the Washington Post, and nobody has complained. It is form over substance here. MBS is being snubbed not so much for what he did, but for doing it without proper style. It is a bit stupid, right? Which is why in the end life will go on, and he will survive with the hope that he and his advisors will exercise better judgment when he does things like this in the future. Sorta like a mob boss being shunned by the other mobsters for a messy killing that brought shame on the rest of the mafia.
It would be good to see somewhat of a return to the idea of consensus that previous rulers respected. You can’t succeed by being a total dictator in this world that requires a modicum of collaboration. I don’t know MBS and have no personal opinions about the man, but this is not a good situation for him or for people like Jared Kushner who built a regional foreign policy around him and who pushed out people like Rex Tillerson who didn’t buy into the Saudi program he espoused. Saudi Arabia is in certain ways too big to fail; nobody wants failure there or instability. But still I wonder what Trump expects from the Saudis in return for toadying up to them on this, and you can safely assume that other important people in the world are wondering about what Trump is getting from the Saudis to make presidential decisions that favor them. Imagine if the Israelis did this; do you think a US president would be bending over backward to cover it up? MBS is expendable; Saudi Arabia is not, and it would be geopolitically dangerous to force the two to be considered as one. I’m just calling balls and strikes here, but this one strikes me as a classic tale of Crash and Burn. But yet, MBS is going to be around because the Saudis don’t really have a Plan B, and because they are afraid that if they let go of him, everyone will fight and there will be chaos, which is not good for Saudi Arabia or anyone else. What I expect will happen is that the King will establish some controls around the prince and that the prince will realize he ought not try to eliminate every single person in the kingdom that gives him pause. The billionaire prince Alaweed is reduced to being a sidekick to MBS to trot out at business conferences and he must really be feeling bad for himself these days. All things considered, MBS seems to be a clever guy who makes mistakes and who, on a personal level, gets along with and even seems to conspire with other leaders such as fellow leading oil producer Putin (you gotta wonder what was behind that high-five between them at the G20 summit in Argentina this month), some of whom try to mentor him. The question is whether he learns from them.
Israel’s Netanyahu is also clever and paranoid which is why he’s lasted so long and the players in the region respect him. He realizes MBS is going to be around for a long time and he stuck up for him publicly saying that the stability of Saudi Arabia with MBS is more important than the murder of a journalist. He knows that MBS will keep stock of who his friends were and that he’ll have some chits with him for the future. He’s got MBS to play Trump by making noises that he will work with the Israelis against Iran and give them more status in the region. Netanyahu hopes the Saudis will give him diplomatic gifts to help him win reelection next year. Netanyahu and MBS must be kindred spirits, one of them running a democracy and the other running a monarchy. Both of them will likely be around for a long time. Bibi has an election this year and several criminal indictments that might be coming his way, but like MBS, there is nobody in the wings that is a viable candidate for takeover mainly due to both their efforts in blocking alternatives. You also have to give Bibi credit; he runs a good show as prime minister. Economy and security have been managed better under him than virtually any other prime minister in the country’s history, which is why he is on track to be the longest serving prime minister in the country’s history.
I noticed that there was a conference in the Balkans last month and that the Israeli prime minister was the only foreign leader invited. Clearly the Israelis are players in some interesting neighborhoods in the world today which is why everyone is dealing with them, from the Gulf countries to the Chinese. You saw the Netanyahu recently visited Oman. It is not exactly a big secret (it’s been rumored for years) that every Sunday a plane takes off from Israel, changes its tail designation in Amman and continues to Dubai with a bunch of security personnel who return home Thursday night. Presumably, they are working for the Emirates and even when I visited the UAE 10 years ago, I heard from local citizens about close cooperation with Israeli security personnel (which is why I always wondered what really happened with the Israeli assassination in Dubai around a decade ago of a terrorist). Netanyahu’s government has really succeeded in building diplomatic bridges for that country as never before accomplished except perhaps in Africa in the 1960’s before the Six Day War. But today’s relationships dwarf those.
The problem is that Bibi figured out that in the short term it makes sense for Israel to align itself with Christian Evangelicals in America and right-wing authoritarians elsewhere from the Philippines to Brazil to Hungary and he would help them shelter their antisemitism in return for their support of such red meat issues as moving an embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. There is this marriage of convenience with the Gulf Arab states but I view it as a deck of cards in terms of any meaningful alliance. Israel is selling all kinds of new technologies for autocrats to spy on their own citizens; it’s perhaps arms for a new generation of warfare but it looks bad in a way that missiles and tanks did not. In the long sense he is alienating liberals who were the bedrock of support for Israel everywhere and making Israel a partisan issue instead of the bipartisan consensus issue that it was. Jews under age 40 who predominantly vote liberal are not nearly into Israel as were post-world war II survivors and they are not going to stop the presses and buy Israel Bonds the next time the country goes to war. They are not going to be upset if America says to Israel that it can go screw itself because they are not at all sure that they support today’s Israel. Heck they don’t even show up to synagogue services where they would be expected to pledge to buy those bonds. Young evangelicals are also not as pro-Israel as their parents. In fact, college campuses have become pretty hostile to Israel, and young Jews except for the Orthodox want to stay away from all this controversy because they themselves are not sure they support Israel viz a viz the Palestinians. Registration for “birthright” trips to Israel (basically free 10 day trips to Israel for young Jews) is down from last year between 20-50% depending on the travel provider; there has been a lot of pushback against what people were calling propaganda trips and it appears that participation has gone down even for a free trip. I wrote in Global Thoughts about 5 years ago that Israel would become the “South Africa” pariah state of this generation even though the apartheid issue is not parallel, but in any event it has become the South Africa type pariah state that I said it would, and especially in the Democratic Party the support for Israel is not going to be anywhere near bedrock as it was. Netanyahu has been around long enough to create that fissure and it will outlast him after he’s gone. The damage has been done. It’s sorta like global warming. It’s too late to fix a good amount of what’s been done. To keep debating about whether it’s a problem is to be behind the curve. Those watching pro-Israel Fox TV are watching a small piece of the world that looks like it is all of the world but they will wake up one day to find out the world around them has changed, and then it will be too late. Trying to spend millions of dollars to finance trips to Israel or to affect public opinion is a waste of money. The policies speak for themselves. The government of Israel keeps telling 90% of the Jews in America that they are not really Jewish and that when they come to Israel they can’t practice their religion at the holiest places of pilgrimage. I don’t see Jewish federations (charitable associations from Jewish communities mostly in the US), which get most of their funding from non-religious Jews, being all that excited to send donations there. The Jewish federations recently had a conference in Israel; the slogan of the conference was “We need to talk.” But they didn’t. It was a mealy-mouthed conference which I was told by attendees was an insult to the intelligence. There’s no point in talking when you know that the other side is just not interested in what you have to say. Netanyahu needs his religious rightwing parties to stay in power. The liberal Americans have no power in the Israeli government so they can be humored but generally ignored. After the recent terrorist attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the chief rabbinate of Israel issued a statement referring to the Jewish community center in Pittsburgh because the synagogue was not an orthodox synagogue. When the Israeli cabinet member came to visit Pittsburgh, nobody would greet him except for the Israeli ambassador. I think this tells you just about everything you need to know about the true state of Israeli-American Jewish relations.
Before leaving the Middle East, one more thought. Here is something that I didn’t know about and I like to think I am well informed. Turns out there is this huge oil field in Western Texas that by 2020 will be producing more oil than anything in Saudi Arabia. It’s called the Permian Basin; I had to look it up on Google because I didn’t even know what it was called. It’s not the only big oil field coming online in the US. I’m told the US is about to become the world’s largest oil producing country thanks to the technology of fracking and Barack Obama who lifted a ban on oil exports and gave the impetus for this kind of investment. Oil companies are looking forward to a banner market. You’d think that with that kind of threat, we wouldn’t need to suck up to the Saudis so much, which is exactly why people are wondering what Trump is getting for his suck-up.
One thing Trump has succeeded in doing: The US now believes on a bipartisan basis that China is the #1 threat. A quarter century of policy is seen to be a mistake (ie: hoping that admitting China into various economic clubs would lead the country to play by the rules of the world order), and it is now a priority to put China in check before it does even more harm to western interests. The Economist had that on its cover a few months ago and you can see that all the countries in the world are being asked to choose sides, which is one reason the Chinese are giving Canada such a hard time this past week. American companies are coming to the realization that profound change is coming and they are starting to think of updating their supply chains that until now have run through China. I think that the Chinese made a mistake letting its current leadership get too much power and become too aggressive and they basically got almost the whole US and West alarmed and angry at China. The Wall Street Journal has a big article this month about frustrated expatriates who have given up trying to do business in China. American universities are buying tuition insurance to cover themselves in case Trump starts throwing out Chinese students. The Chinese will huff and puff about how they can’t afford to lose face and give concessions. (The supposed concessions that China made this week to the US are mostly recycled items from previous negotiations.) The Americans just had Canada arrest a major executive of a major Chinese company for fraud with evading sanctions against Iran. We know that the Chinese are not helping keep North Korea in check with sanctions. So basically, you’re going to have a Cold War with China. They might be driven to lock arms with Russia, but those countries have too much to fear from each other that the US is not losing sleep over that contingency. This Cold War will be a drag for the entire world, but it may be necessary because there are real problems and the two sides are not cooperating to deal with them. There are military flashpoints, cybersecurity attacks, technology theft, tariffs, sanction evasion – pick a card, any card. This is a great example of squandering what could have been a great economic boom time for the whole world. If both Trump and Xi of China would just keep their mouths shut, we could all make more money. In the end, the US will win because the whole world wants to be like America. Nobody really wants to be like China with its own corruption scandals, arrests of all sorts of people, and things that don’t really work. China has been often getting its way in the world through lending money to countries that can’t pay it back with projects they don’t need or that don’t work, and by bribing political leaders to enter these deals, and by funding media worldwide that will write and say what they want it to say. They’re not really winning people’s hearts and minds, especially when people see that they are basically pushing their way into their countries in a way that is not benefitting real people. It will certainly get them military bases, technology and natural resources – but it might also lead to revolutions in these countries that have the result of kicking them out in any event.
It took me some time but I finally got through Bob Woodward’s latest book “Fear” and it is a bit scary to read just how dumb the current president is made out to be. The book is not exactly a cliff-hanger but it plods along and tells you the inside story of how things happen in the Trump White House. Readers of this website have probably read the various reports in the media about the book by now. Trump is basically portrayed as a stubborn impulsive moron who has to be held in check by his various advisors who hide things from him and make his dangerous and rash executive orders disappear before he can sign them. The White House is seen as a chaotic place where anything can and does happen. It’s pretty sad to see all the grownups in the place falling all over themselves to keep order and sanity alive. At this point they are saying that the A and B teams are gone and the White House is reduced to the C and D teams.
Silicon Valley became too big for its own britches and now you can’t start a startup there anymore. It simply costs too much to live and work there. One problem is that the tech companies that became gigantic step on any new startups so it is becoming hard to be a start-up. If you get too big at whatever you are doing, they either force you to sell to them or they try and get rid of you. The recent revelations about Facebook from the British parliament are pretty damning and I would expect the US Congress to get on their backs this coming year. In general, the major tech companies are acting like monopolies except that the prices they charge to consumers are competitive. The problem is that once there is no competition and we are left with monopolies, it will be too late. The Economist has opined several times this year that the American economy would be stronger if there were more competition. Antitrust law has to catch up, because it only kicks in when prices become too high. This is a new model of business that has no historical precedent, but it is not innocuous. It needs to be kept in check for the sake of the greater good, even if people right now are benefitting from low prices.
Since so many people now expect a major market correction in 2019 and a recession, maybe the markets will be extra cautious and the worst won’t come to pass. Usually bad things happen when people are irrationally exuberant.
Venezuela hosted some Russian bombers that could hold nuclear weapons. They did it only for a week, but if this kind of thing keeps up, the US will probably be forced to go for regime change in that country. As the Ukraine goes for Russia, Venezuela goes for the US.
Aside from that, I don’t have a lot of predictions about 2019. I just read thru Stratfor’s intelligence service which has grown to the point that they have to fill up 100 pages with predictions that at this point don’t mean anything, such as that China and America will vie for supremacy or that Israel will do all it can to deal with the Iranian threat. I’m not going to insult your intelligence. I’ve said enough and at this point wish you a happy and healthy 2019.
Travel Notes Spain November 2018 With Family (Madrid, Toledo, Granada, Seville, Cordoba, Barcelona)
AA’s relatively new Flagship lounge at JFK is more competitive with international airlines. Onboard still pretty crappy at least on an older 767 with surly crews. We had a 5 hour departure delay due to bad weather in NYC which affected all flights. I got sick from bad food on board. (The return trip on a 777 was a much better experience. The airline says the Barclelona flights get the better planes.) We waited a long time for the luggage on arrival. Madrid is now a huge airport and it took about an hour to get out of it. On departure for a domestic flight, its Terminal 4 is much better (don’t have to take a train out to the gates and walk all over the place) and the food was good such as a Paul’s café. In Madrid, the Melia Gran Hotel Fenix is centrally located by Colon Square near the main Corte Igles department store. The hotel is an old style but well kept up hotel with a 7th floor executive lounge with very good attendants and feeling of calm. We ate room service menu in the lounge (good menu) both nights and the food was good (although slow to come). Breakfast buffet in the lounge was comparable to the lobby level and included a menu of hot dishes prepared to order. The hotel has a small Thai spa (no sauna) and a decent enough gym. Our two rooms connected and the bathrooms were squishy; anyone over 200 pounds would have trouble getting in and out of the toilet. No CNN. But not bad value for money and for a Spanish hotel chain we were pleasantly surprised at the food offerings. Hotel was decent with me; I screwed up and reserved the room a day early by mistake; they only made me pay 50% of the rate because I pointed to a slew of prearrival emails sent to the hotel confirming my check in date in the few weeks before arrival and nobody seemed to have noticed the discrepancy even though they asked me for my confirmation number. I also got double-billed by the hotel on my Amex but they promptly resolved it upon discovery.
Took an all-day tour in Madrid with a guide who runs her own children’s tour company. Several companies have tried to offer child-friendly tours in Madrid and have failed. My son wasn’t crazy about the guide but the rest of us liked her. Her company is acrossmadrid.com and her name is Almudena Cros. We started at Plaza de Sol, the main square which is not a terribly safe place to be, and visited two old bakeries and the latter also offering luscious hot chocolate (Antigua Pasteleria del Pozo and El Riojano — I’ve stopped writing addresses of named places because you can Google these places and find them at this point), and went to the Royal Palace and the Armory below it. Both are worth seeing; the palace is well furnished and the kids liked seeing the children’s suits of armor. Snacked at a Starbucks which had nicer food than what we get at home such as a goat cheese sandwich on a dark roll. Visited the Prado museum; the new third floor hall of treasures is exceptional and is interesting for it is decorative art and not just jewelry. The guide talked of famous paintings and various techniques used through the ages such as the shift from egg-based paint to oil and the meaning of the Vazquez painting of the Spanish royal court. Nearby to the Plaza Mayor is the Mercado San Miguel, an upscale foodie market with great tapas at low prices. There was a nearby handbag store “Gyll Bolsos” with colorful and reasonably priced bags. Visited Toledo, about an hour’s drive away. Quality Cars World is a local car service (qualitycarsworld.com); very hard to find these on the internet today because the multinationals crowd out all the Google searches, and the hotel of course takes an extra hundred euro to book it for you. This was the most reasonably priced of the various car companies I found and it was fine at about 50 Euros an hour. In Toledo we walked around for about 2.5 hours and saw 2 synagogues, a monastery, 2 craft shops and a pop-up zip line across the moat of the city which looked really cool but was busy (and maybe not so safe). We continued to the airport for our 4pm 40 minute flight to Granada. Train service from Madrid to Granada is not practical. Madrid has a lot of public works projects going on and it is improving; much better than the run-down place I last saw about 5 years ago. AirBnB is driving out local residents as owners and landlords realize they can get much more money renting out center city apartments to tourists than monthly tenants.
A half hour taxi ride to our hotel Parador de Granada, a government-run hotel inside the grounds of the Alhambra area of the city. It is the only hotel on the grounds. Do not go there on a Sunday night into Monday; the museum will be closed. Make sure you have tickets for the Alhambra before you leave to Spain. If you cannot get tickets from the official website (and assume that you won’t unless you go there months in advance), go to Viator or the various multi-national online travel agencies which buy up all the tickets and force you to book their expensive tours. Our 5-star hotel was utterly useless in terms of trying to help us get tickets and local guides are also helpless. It’s a big scam. The hotel is very pretty and has an excellent dining room for dinner and breakfast with lots of local specialties which surprisingly we were able to enjoy. There is no gym but from a junior suite you could see the Summer Palace outside your window and the rooms were nice. The Nazari sitting room just off the interior courtyard of the hotel is a beautiful little sitting room to curl up with a good book. The hotel is small at 40 rooms and we couldn’t get connecting rooms we had reserved. It rained throughout our visit to the Alhambra and that was not helpful; this is a good place to visit during October and May. 3 hour tour of the Alhambra palace and gardens; we didn’t see the museum which was closed on Mondays. Afternoon tour of the city which was interesting; the view of the Alhambra from the Mirador St. Nicolas is something to see. We visited the Royal Chapel and walked down alleys and streets to get a feel for the city and its history. We booked a guide here through Tours By Locals toursbylocals.com which was very good and which we used for several tours on this trip. The guide said he had to go thru 4 interviews before he was accepted by the service. He was definitely an informed local named Daniele Grammatico cell 34.647.829.969 and you can look him up on the service. Now for a surprise – we got to the train station half an hour early for our train to Seville with a train ticket issued by the country’s rail company only to find out there is no train service. It was a ticket to take 2 buses and then a train. Wound up taking us 4 hours to do a trip that we could have done by express bus in under 3. Upon arrival in Seville, there was a taxi strike so we called Uber and got the last laugh.
SEVILLE – the #1 hotel in town is probably the Alfonso XIII which is part of Starwood. The interior of the building is very historical and beautiful and the location is within walking distance of everything. It is a large hotel and there are special offers from Starwood such as 50% off on a connecting room and free food for kids. Our room felt like an apartment; it was an Executive Room with a connecting room. It had a piano in the living room. Perhaps they upgraded us to a suite but I don’t know from the hotel’s website. The hotel has a nice breakfast and dinner but service in the dining room can be disturbingly slow; I had to get up from the table several times during our stay to keep the trains moving. No spa at this hotel which is a sorry thing for tired feet as you walk a lot in this town; the hotel is centrally located but still… Lots of nice shops here without big brand names all over the place. Hotel has a small but adequate gym; the outdoor pool is too cold in winter. Jeremy liked that the TV had YouTube on it so he would just come back every day around 3pm for a few hours siesta from the sightseeing and watch his blooper videos which made him very happy and which got this hotel his favorite hotel vote. Devour Tours offers a kids tour of major Spanish cities of about 3 hours which are all pretty similar in format – walk around and eat treats. The tour in Seville included a visit to a place where you could see churros being made and get to eat them (Bar el Comercio), visit to an interesting neighborhood with shops, a walk along the Mushroom art installation atop a city market which was really cool, and a visit to an old food market with weird items and a stop at a tapas place. After the tour we took a horse and buggy ride to the Plaza Espana and a nearby park, which are both very beautiful. Then another 3 hour tour (you can see why Jeremy took siesta) to see city sites such as the Alcazar and the Cathedral. You find out that the same architect was hired to do the Alhambra and the Alcazar even though one ruler was Moslem and the other was Christian. You get the opportunity to compare and contrast and see how it all comes together. Jewish prime minsters were close to both palaces and were clearly important to rulers in both districts. The whole issue of history here is complex – we had to sift through competing narratives and try to make sense of it. We found ourselves more confused the more we heard. I suggested that Karen confer with a professional historian after we return to parse between the BS and the truth if it exists. Were Jews targeted in the Inquisition because they were hated or because they needed to be eliminated as part of a power play of communities that were on one side or the other as Christians tried to overtake the Moslems? Were Jews expelled so that the Christian king and queen wouldn’t have to repay them for the money they lent to the conquering Christians? Earlier the country was close to bankrupt and Jewish money was necessary; after Columbus discovered the new world, there was so much money coming in the country could afford to dispense with the Jews. Were ghettos created to protect the Jews who were property of the king and under attack from outside, or was it meant to keep them down and out? There are lots of questions. In Seville, Jewish sites are identifiable only by coded signs and guides who tell you what you are looking at. The remains of the Jewish cemetery are located at the bottom of an underground car park with one sign and a glass wall showing one body. In Barcelona, there are more signs that identify Jewish sites. Clearly, the country knows there is money to be made in playing up Jewish tourism but Seville is very Catholic and doesn’t want you to see Jewish things. In Cordoba, there is a ton of signage about Maimonides but in reality he left the city by age 11 never to return. His life story comes from elsewhere.
In Seville, the cathedral has a tower and you can get up to the top with ramps (33 of them) which was clever in the old days. Allow 15 minutes to go up and down. Christopher Columbus’s tomb is inside. He toured the world after his death since his body was moved so many times for several hundred years. He would make a good namesake for a travel club for deceased members. The Jewish Quarter runs off the cathedral. There are certain street corners in central Seville where flamenco dancers are always doing something; 30 seconds of it was enough for our kids so I recommend you watch it on the street and skip the 2 hour show. Again, we had periods of rain here and ideally the trip should have been mid to late October or mid to late May.
There is a 40 minute speed train to Cordoba running frequently and security is tight but efficient for this train. If you time it right and reserve online in advance, you can get first class tickets for less than second class. In Cordoba in 3 hours we did the city tour that usually takes 5-6 hours including the Mezquita mosque/cathedral, the Alcazar palace ruins and a walk around the city and its streets. Lots of pretty little alleys and patios. On the alley of flowers off the main square around the mezquita there is a nice leather shop selling unusual items called Meryan. One way to save an hour here is not to eat a sit-down lunch. We used tours by locals again and the guide was Barry Simpson cell 34.627.068.627– there is a jewish tour company but it skips the mezquita which is the most important site you come here to see. Our guide was Brian from Scotland. You can look him up on the service. Back in Seville, we met up with Gershon’s jewish tour agency Dukium.com cell 34.645.752.722 to do an abbreviated 90 minute version of his 3 hour city tour in which he discusses his fractured historical version of Jewish Spain. You can visit a Jewish museum which is paid for by Christians and which may or may not be factually correct. We basically walked around the Santa Cruz district which through pictures, documents and circumstantial evidence has a lot of Jewish history behind it. You have to leave a lot of this to the imagination. You see 3 crosses in a city square and you are supposed to know that a big pogrom took place there. Like I said, it is sort of clue-based history with strange looking logos telling you it is a site of Jewish history. We had dinner at La Isla, said by the hotel to be best fish restaurant in town – stick to the hotel food except that this place served a 7pm dinner while the hotel restaurant opens at 8 unless you want bar food. The taxis were back on strike again tonight!
On the way to the airport, we drove through the International expo area which was the site of the 1992 world’s fair. It is interesting to drive through for a few minutes and it’s on the way to the airport. It’s about a 20 minute ride to the airport; I think they built a new highway since my last visit here. The no-frills airline Veuling is a bit cramped on the plane even up front but it works and arrived on time. The Seville airport has little to do but it also works. Flight to Barcelona is 1:15. The Barcelona airport feels pretty sterile like Munich. It is well designed for arrivals with a separate escalator leading to the taxi rank with quick loading. It’s about 20-30 minutes to the city center depending on traffic. I saved Barcelona for the end of the trip because it is just more fun and pleasant to visit this city with its various attractions; the kids are tired of seeing cathedrals and learning about the history of 13th thru 15th century Spain.
I’ve been to Barcelona a few times and still haven’t found a hotel I really like. Mandarin Oriental Hotel is on passage de gracia, a main street. Its connecting rooms are small and I was very unhappy with the design of the room (ie: nightlights, position of the A/C; no drawers but excellent showers), but the hotel has high level of service and food (although we found some concierges to be clueless which was a surprise). The gym is very small (can’t fit more than 2 people training at the same time) but it also has an indoor pool and sauna (which closes at 9). The real problem with this hotel is the next step up for a room is a junior suite which costs more than 3x the price of a more standard type deluxe room, which is insane. A more clever choice is the Hotel Majestic a few blocks down the street which for the same or less money you can get significantly larger rooms such as a junior suite connecting to an executive room with a nice view. I checked it out; not at quite the same level but still 5 stars and much better value for money. Last time I stayed at the Ritz Carlton which was far away from city center. This location is only 4 blocks from the Cortes Igles department store at the heart of Plaza Catalunya. Upon arrival, we walked the length of the Rambla to the waterfront and stopped at La Boqueria market which had super duper fruits and veges and yummy items such as crepes and pastries. We had the most delicious mangoes ever and you can get fruit smoothies for a buck. Jeremy probably had the biggest baddest kit kat crepe in his life. Dinner at Macabee Kosher grill restaurant (Rambla 79 – halfway down the street) which was surprisingly good, reasonably priced and better than many New York City kosher restaurants. An Israeli saw an opportunity here and went into business. We saw some great Spanish breakdancers on the street. The highlight of the trip for the kids and certainly it was fun also for us is the Magical Fountains show near the Place d’ Espana. The show is at 8 and 8:30 certain nights of the week (at least Th/F/S and daily during the summer but check the website to be sure). They play Top 40 music and the fountains go with all kinds of colors and designs. Tons of people come to watch; they all try to sit on the steps of the palace but you can do very well just going right up to the fountains and being up close. It’s sorta like the Bellagio fountains at Las Vegas.
The next day we visited Sagrada Familia cathedral which requires timed tickets. It was raining so the tower was closed; we were very disappointed at not being to go climbing about but I’m told it is really narrow and scary up there so I guess it was OK that we didn’t go. To enjoy this cathedral, try and be there when the sun is shining so that the colors show up inside. If you go during peak season, buy two sets of tickets so that you hope that at least one of them will be good for you. It’s a cheap form of travel insurance. Parc Goell is a great place to visit and also now needs timed tickets (25 years ago you could just walk into anything in this town) and nearby is the Gaudi 4D experience which you could totally skip. We left Jeremy at the hotel at this point and continued walking to the Gothic Quarter which was surprisingly interesting. We walked pretty streets; one shopping street in particular is called Petritxol and has unusual shops and is very historic and charming. The Music Palace is a lovely building and offers 1 hour interior tours in English; we would return to that at a later trip without the kids. We walked thru the Jewish Quarter which does have some signs around. See this district with a guide for the full appreciation of it. Dinner at Assunta Madre a Barcelona across the street from Casa Mila (a Gaudi building attraction a few blocks from the Mandarin Oriental and Majestic hotels). It’s at 300 Provenza Street. It’s an old school Italian restaurant; pick your fish in the window and enjoy. The ice creams and desserts are all home-made; I tried as many as possible. We had a mix of clouds, rain and sun; for more optimal visit here look at Columbus Day weekend or Memorial Day weekend.
Next day we went to Mosaica, a place where kids can do arts and crafts projects. So can parents. This project is to create mosaics in the style of Gaudi (who is the architect that designed many of the attractions in Barcelona). The hotel was good about bringing back the finished projects in a taxi for us because we didn’t want to return a few hours later to pick them up. You can book this through Viator. The studio is on a street that is not reachable by taxi but you can get off a block away. The studio is in the Born district. A few minutes walk away is the Ciutadella Park which is a lovely city park that demands a walk-thru. At the edge of the park is the entrance to the Zoo and you can get taxis there. A great thrill ride is the funicular that runs between Mount Juic (near Place D’Espana) and the Port. It is smarter to get on the ride at Mount Juic because the line is 1/10 as long. You really only need to buy a one way ticket. The ride is great and goes over the seaport area of the city and you get a real great 360 view of the city, the coastline and the mountains. There are several funiculars and trams (one goes up to a castle); make sure you get the right one. Some people buy tickets online and it is misleading and they come there with the wrong tickets and, to add insult to injury, they still have to stand on the line! At the Mount Juic side, there is a hotel Mirador right near the funicular station and you can get a taxi there. There is also a terrace with a great view where you can eat; the food is awful, but you already knew that! We then took a taxi to the Laberint d’Horta park (Labrynthe park) with its outdoor maze. It turned out to be closed when we visited as our concierge didn’t notice that the official website clearly stated it was closed for a month for maintenance. It’s supposed to be a fun outdoor attraction for kids. Turned out it was a blessing in disguise; we kept our taxi waiting for us (a good idea since there are no taxis around there but you could try Cabify or Uber car services (Cabify is recommended in Barcelona). We used the remaining hour of daylight to roam the roof at Casa Mila, a Gaudi house attraction, and see the sunlight hitting the roof at the end of the day. The owners of the Gaudi homes do a great job of milking tourists for every last dollar. You should get enter anytime tickets if you don’t want to be pressured by timed tickets. Costs a few dollars more but you can be more flexible with your time. If the rooftop terrace is closed for rain, don’t visit this attraction at that time. These buildings are interesting to see; he really was an architect with innovative designs and was given free license to do whatever he wanted with these buildings. In the evening we visited Casa Battlo, a few blocks away, another Gaudi project. It is a different experience seeing one of these buildings at night. The Casa Mila has an evening show with lights and sound but it is long and we don’t know if it is interesting; none of the concierges we spoke to had seen it. We finished our last night with dinner at the hotel which was excellent and a view on the rooftop terrace of the city in lights including the Sagrada Familia and a tower with multi-colored lights that looks a bit like the egglike buildings in London and Tokyo.
Tax free shopping here is a bit of a crock. Lines for the refund at the department store are very long and at the airport the lines were unbearable and we skipped it. There are digital refund kiosks for certain stores but the kiosks mainly don’t work and don’t find your purchase registered in their system. And you still have to wait in the line for the custom stamp afterward so there is no use of it. Barcelona airport on departure was unwieldly and we never found the airport lounge. The area of the gates is really sterile and if you walk thru the wrong door you can’t come back. This is a terrible EU exit point for tax free shopping, but you can bring back your forms for a stamp anytime up to the calendar end of 3 months past the month you get the form. So if you shop on September 10, you have until Dec 31 to get the customs stamp at exit from any EU exit point. We flew back on a new American Airlines 777 which was much better than the trip over but I found that lighting for interior seats was awful, so if you don’t want to be in the dark, sit next to a window. The airline puts out decent snacks in the middle of the flight which is very appreciated and the ADA-compliant (American Disability Act) restrooms are spacious. The VGML lunch was Indian food and really gross to mainstream eaters; an attendant mentioned NLML which she said is fish and pasta (the code stands for non-lactose meal), which might be a good choice to remember. VLML is lacto-ovo vegetarian which is also much better than the VGML vegan stuff. It’s about 8 hours back to JFK.
Spain is a reasonably priced country; prices in the stores for clothes were cheap with markdowns and still people were not exactly rushing the counters till the weekend after Black Friday which is now a worldwide affair. Taxis are cheap and food prices are reasonable. Even hotel rooms are OK; rents in Barcelona are a lot cheaper than New York City. Unemployment rate is still about 25% here so people just don’t have a lot of money to spend. We liked our trip; the kids wrote great journals about it and Karen and I would definitely want to return to Barcelona to enjoy the city at a slower pace without the kids.