How To Fiesta In Alicante

8 Jun

Alicante isn’t a city that’s known for its looks; nor is it a place that I would call ‘pretty’. My anticipation for a picturesque, cute Spanish old town was quickly let down once I realized it was run amok with nightclubs, drunken hen do’s and ugly, decrepit buildings. In fact, you might be wondering what’s so great about this typical English holiday destination with little to see aside from the sea. A fiesta with the locals of course!

As the locals do at Mercado Central, Alicante

As the locals do at Mercado Central, Alicante

Alicante is a small city on the Costa Blanca with a great foodie scene at a fraction of the cost of the larger tourist cities like Barcelona and Madrid. While aside from the monstrous Moorish Castillo de Santa Barbara that towers over the popular beach Playa del Postiguet, there aren’t many massive tourist sites to see (although I do recommend making the time for this one and it’s stunning coastal views). That’s okay though when it’s sunny year-round, there’s plenty of paellas to keep you full (try Dársena on the waterfront) and there’s, of course, a party around every corner.

Where to fiesta in Alicante:

Hogueras de San Juan: We witnessed the start of the summer’s most important festival, the celebration of the arrival of the summer solstice. We were lucky to see the Artistic Fiesta Lights in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento and the parade of natives dressed in traditional garments, impressively some sporting large paper mâché heads whilst on stilts. Unfortunately, we missed the best bit of the festival, on the 24th of June is the Night of Burning or “Noche de la Cremà”, when 200 large satirical paper mâché statues are lit on fire.

Hogueras de San Juan

Hogueras de San Juan

Mercado Central: On a Saturday afternoon locals gather around midday at the epicenter of the city, the central market. After roaming the meat, cheese, fruit, veg, and fish stalls, a common shopping place for regulars (don’t forget to hold your nose from the stench), everyone orders a small plate of pre-cut Iberico Jamon from one of the vendors, grabs an unlabeled beer from the booze stall, and stands in the sun outside catching up with friends before starting their Saturday night. We too took part in the tradition which was one of the highlights of our trip, chatting with amicable locals to the sound of chants for the forthcoming football match and trying different varieties of Spanish ham and cheese…and of course, beer.

Choosing our Jamon platter in Mercado Central

Choosing our Jamon platter in Mercado Central

Devouring Jamon in Mercado Central in Cambridge Graduation (Dr!) hat!

Devouring Jamon in Mercado Central in Cambridge Graduation (Dr!) hat!

Carrer Castanos: If you like generously free poured gin and tonics in large round glasses, shisha’s and salsa dancing at any hour of the day, this is your spot. Bar Ten10 offers all of the above, and we couldn’t help ourselves to a midafternoon boogie after indulging a few too many beers outside Mercado Central. For a safer option, take a turn on Calle San Francisco for a variety of cute tapas restaurants, sit alfresco and enjoy fresh squid, fried green peppers and so much more. El Rebujito Taperia was highly recommended, although the squid didn’t live up to its expectations.

Jules with Al Fonso and Davide

Jules with Al Fonso and Davide

Football: The Champions League Final 2017 took place whilst we were in town, Real Madrid vs. Juventus, and without a question, the city supported their famous neighbor Madrid. Pubs and tabernas put their TV’s outside, as everyone under the sun gathered to witness the epic match. We were lucky to find a spot to sip Aperol spritz perched on the ledge outside Amapola Pub, to observe the locals go nuts in the frenzy watching Real Madrid defend their UEFA Champions League title. Even better, next door, Taberna San Pascual served the best aubergine lasagna and Spanish meatballs; one of our best meals in the city.

Champions League Final at Amapola Pub

Champions League Final at Amapola Pub

Il Barrio: If you’re 18 and want to party, Il Barrio on a Friday and Saturday night is where it happens. Who would have thought we were too old for it? The youngins poured onto the streets out from upbeat discotheques to rock metal clubs. Instead, we chose to dance our hearts out at Havana Club, one of the few places that played both Spanish and Top 20 English-speaking dance beats. For a few hours, we were the only ones on the dance floor, sangria in hand, rocking out as if we were anywhere in the world. Plus, if you venture during the day there’s always spots like La Tasca del Barrio to keep you busy with their killer tapas and wine selection.

Jamon from La Tasca del Barrio

Jamon from La Tasca del Barrio

So there you have it! If it’s simply the sun, sangria and tapas you are seeking, shared with friendly locals and a stunning coastline, leave your tourist map at home because you’re still in for a treat. In fact, there are no hawkers to chase you down, some even need to go find their English speaking friend to help. And whilst we were slightly off season, I can’t comment on the mega beach and pool parties that sculpt the classic summer sesh. So would I go back? Likely not, but for a quick and cheap holiday in the sun I certainly don’t regret going either.

A Rosé Holiday in Montpellier

18 May Languedoc wine region

The student-centric city of Montpellier is not what one assumes when you say you’re jetting off to the south of France. Typically, the exotic beaches of the Côte d’Azur (French Riviera), Nice, Cannes and Saint-Tropez fit the bill but for me and my crew, a short jaunt to the 8th largest city in France to sip rosé in the sun is just what the doctor ordered.

To start, Montpellier is perfectly located to get a quick taste of the fabulous Languedoc wine route. We started off with a half-day tour led by the friendly and knowledgeable Karina from Montpellier Wine Tours to visit two medieval, family-owned estates.

Montpellier Wine TourSet at the base of Pic Saint-Loup, Château La Roque’s entire biodynamic selection was perfect on the palate and we couldn’t escape without two bottles of Château La Roque Rosé 2015 in tow. Followed by Château de Lascaux, sitting amongst the dated stone walls in an old monastery, set the scene perfectly for our second tasting.

Château La Roque VineyardA short train ride from the city is the unpretentious colorful port town of Sète. Narrow canals create a maze around the old town, surprisingly busy for a Sunday when the rest of France shuts down. Families enjoyed ice-creams, as we parked ourselves in front of the foodie mecca Les Halles, to sip more rosé in the sun to the sound of locals playing music in the street out front.

Languedoc coastAfter a scenic walk along the Languedoc coast, we discovered a small, quiet beach. It was an ideal and unsuspecting place to grab a baguette, some cured ham and cheese to picnic, coupled with a light, refreshing rosé in the scorching heat. On our way back to town, it was only necessary to sit along the canal to soak up the last of the day’s sun and try the big fat locally farmed oysters, king prawns and mussels.

Seafood platter in SèteThe best part of Montpellier is not only the short 14k proximity to a stunning coastline but cycling there! A paved path with fit runners, wild horses and fishermen hug the lush green river Lez, topped with Lilly pads and flamingos and lined with bright purple, yellow and white flowers mixed with bright red poppies. We let our skirts flow with the wind as we rode hired bikes along the pathway to its mouth Palavas-les-Flots, and stopped along the way for yet again another indulging picnic and bottle of rosé to reward ourselves for the day’s efforts.

Cycling to Palavas-les-Flots

Montpellier wild horsesMontpellier is an interesting city for sure. A friend asked why go? There’s nothing there, he said. But if you like great wine, fresh seafood and fantastic weather, there’s nothing not to like. It’s a quirky and charming place, tattoo and piercing shops nestle up next to century-old buildings; student friendly cheap eats, kabab and bagel shops rival Michelin recommended bistros while street performers, hippies and homeless dogs roam the streets.

Place de la Comédie“Summer is for tourists, wine country is for locals,” Karina said. And I’d like to pretend just for a weekend I was both. Even better, Montpellier turned Sophie from a rosé sceptic to a convert. Nothing beats a rosé holiday!

We loved:
Glouglou: A cute wine bar with a large range of taste-to-pour varietals. The glouglou platter of oysters, salmon, cured ham, cheese and foie gras was a perfect snack to share post-wine tasting.

glouglouThym Et Romarin: An awesome recommendation from Karina, we had our favorite meal in town here with excellent service by Jean. The confit duck and baked camembert were a dream.

The Beehive Pub: Set in a charming square where local townsfolk enjoy a beer at any time of day, the selection of over 40 whiskies gave us no reason to apologize for enjoying a few post-dinner aperitifs at an English pub in France (gasp!).

Le Pré Vert: This beautiful brunch location has the most enormous, delicious salads. Think goat cheese on toast with orange slices and almonds; smoked salmon and trout with mixed vegetables; or pesto chicken and fresh mozzarella.

Grand Hotel du Midi:  Just on the cusp of the old town, this funky contemporary hotel was perfectly situated in buzzing Place de la Comédie in the heart of the city. Service was great, free-Wi-Fi, a friendly bar with a great selection and small balconies to enjoy the morning sun.

Grand Hotel du Midi

 

Exploring the Souks of Marrakech

8 Mar

Splash…a silver bowl filled with water is thrown straight onto my face by a large woman dressed in black cotton. Splash, she grabs my hair and tilts my head back to make sure it’s fully wet and saturated. Splash, more water is thrown onto my body as the final step.

I’m sitting in a dark round room, my body completely bare aside from a disposable thong, ass slightly burning on the warm multi-coloured tiles heated from the steam. My friends and I anxiously laugh as if it’s not awkward at all to be in this situation in the same room together.

Penny gets called out first. Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh and a few giggles is all I hear in return from the neighbouring alcove as Sophie and I exchange glances and sceptically await our turns. When I enter for the exfoliating full body scrub down, I lay face first on the already soap-slathered plastic mat reminiscent of a slip and slide. First the scrub, then lather of clay mud, another splash of water to rinse out the hair wash and then finally, my head and body were covered in argan oil. Despite all of the awkwardness, my first hammam experience was actually bliss, smooth skin and shiny hair to prove it.

Colourful dyes, Medina, Marrakech

We’re in the thick of the red city, the charismatic and tantalising medina of Marrakech, surrounded by mud brick walls, buzzing souks, cat calls from street vendors and frankincense oil wafting from all corners. I absolutely loved every second of it!

My first experience of Morocco was in the overwhelming port city of Tangier, busy and dirty, with lots of hawkers and children begging to the point of exhaustion and irritability, but I at least still have the handpainted clay ashtray to prove it. But Tangier is not Marrakesh.

It was the perfect girls’ long weekend away taken straight from Sex & the City (naturally since it was the location of the second film we learned). We dined at magnificent restaurants (full list below), sipped mint tea, received daily massages, and shopped until our bags were overflowing, giving Penny the opportunity to perfect haggling in French.

Pom Pom Shopping, Marrakesh, Morocco

The heart of the medina is Jemaa el-Fnaa, the big market square where it all happens. Street performers come out to play, while potion makers and storytellers gather crowds, snake charmers tease half-drugged cobra’s and belly dancers perform their art, albeit cross-dressed they rumour. Locals and tourists watch the spectacle, refreshed on fresh-squeezed orange juice from the many vendors, buzzing on the aroma’s wafting from the food stalls before getting lost in the over 3,000 derbs (winding alleys) of the souks just like Aladdin.

One of the favourite pastimes is to simply grab a tea or tagine in the many restaurants overlooking the square and watch life go by to the sounds of music ringing, horse hooves clanking, locals bargaining, taxis beeping and prayer blasting from the speakers of the local mosques while women in headdress haggle for juice, clothes and fresh veg; a weaver handcrafts towels, while old men slump over in robes like Yoda. Life is simple you could say.

Even better, it’s dirt cheap. We did the whole trip, including flights, accommodation in a stunning riad (traditional palace), plentiful food and shopping for about 500 pounds in total. With the exchange rate, it was an inside joke that if you divide by 10 you’re good, but it’s still even less. “It’s like $7 but less” was a common phrase, depending on the number, that helped us justify our bargain while haggling, a Moroccan tradition it would be rude not to.

It also wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as I initially thought it would be. I had a getaway strategy in case a panic attack came soaring in after our first afternoon exploring in the colourful labyrinth in the souks, but we were absolutely fine in the shopper’s paradise. Once I mastered my haggling, my bags were full of tassels, pom poms, embroidery, crockery and more. A simple “no thank you” after being greeted with a heartwarming “Welcome!” was all I needed to say.

Pom Pom basket

No surprise that one of the best bits was the food. At each meal came the tough decision of tagine or cous cous? Chicken, lamb or veg? But no matter what the combination the result was always without fail, delicious. Seasoned with raisins, prunes, lemons, olives, spices and nuts the list goes on for the combinations of flavour explosion. Within the old town, there are a handful of amazing options, whether an up-market restaurant catering to westerners with a liquor licence (do your research in advance), a back garden hidden oasis, or looking out over the famous market square taking it all in.

Tagine at Le Jardin, Marrakech

As a treat, try the pigeon pastilla (sweet and salty pastry filled with pigeon, nuts and honey). And when you’re not sure where to go or what to do, just wander and get lost, taking photos of the ornate coloured doorways, or do like I did, and surprise yourself by purchasing a massive handwoven blanket with tassels included.

Dyers District, Marrakech

On our last day I watched a local man dye cotton in a massive vat, mixing steaming water with dry pigments from plants as part of the tradition. His neighbouring street vendor showed me his freshly dyed cotton shawls, draped one around my head and face like a local woman would and said, “See, you’re now Fatima Cous Cous” or maybe he said I’m fat because I ate too much cous cous. I’ll never know.

La Fatima Cous Cous

Where we ate:

Le Foundouk: One of my favourite meals, I still can taste the chicken tagine with lemon and olives, but also the lamb tagine with prunes and almonds was the sweetest, most rich and moreish we found anywhere. In the summer, ask for a table on the roof terrace and enjoy the extensive wine list.

Chez Chegrouni: The food is simple and cheap but you come here for the view. Simply write your order on a piece of paper and hand it to the waiter and watch the world go by in the buzzing Jemaa el-Fnaa market square below. No reservations or liquor license.

Le Salema: Just off of Jemaa el-Fnaa, this colonial style restaurant has rooftop views, although the service was average, made up by the best pigeon pastilla and offering of mini salads (13!). Plus the waiter serves your food and wine whilst wearing a fez hat so you can’t argue with that picture perfect opportunity.

Waiter at La Salama with Fez

Le Jardin: Known as the secret garden of the medina, it’s the perfect place to escape the crowds. One of our best meals in the whole city, note no alcohol, try the vegetarian tagine for a flavorful veg option and the monkfish tagine was out of this world.

Nomad: Book in advance as it’s one of the hottest places in town, traditional Morrocan with a modern twist, but the best part is the views overlooking the souk and the Atlas Mountains.

Rooftop at Nomad, Marrakech

Cafe Arabe: Albeit a mix of Italian and traditional Morrocan, the reason to come here is to sip cocktails in the sun on the rooftop terrace whilst escaping the narrow streets below. The food is worth it too, especially as any cous cous dish comes with a side au jus to pour over the top until your heart is content.

Kosybar: A great place for a rooftop cocktail, Japanese and Moroccan decor come together in ‘cosy’ environment to just relax, a popular place for expats. Use this stop off as an excuse to spot the stork’s nest in the distance.

Where we stayed:

Palais Calipau: Nestled in the backstreets of the Old Jewish quarter, we settled into a magnificent suite in this old family run mansion. Free breakfast, wifi, swimming pool and rooftop terrace included.

 

Where we relaxed:
Hammam de-la Rose: A modern hammam and spa with excellent facilities. We opted for the Tour of Morocco (2h)……………………800DHS (that’s like 80 pounds but less; realistically 65 pounds). Royal Hammam 60 minutes plus massage of your choice 60 minutes (Sublime Moroccan massage, Herbal massage, Relaxing Oriental massage).

Le Bain Bleu: Finding this place down a rabbit hole of alleyways is half the fun. Less posh than the above but the tonic massage was the way to go, a firm, deep massage to properly de-stress before leaving town. 

I love Morocco 

5 Things I learned on Planet Iceland

11 Jan

Not-coincidentally timed with it being the hottest destination aside from Cuba (figuratively certainly not temperature-wise), this past New Year’s I treated myself to my all-time bucket list destination, Iceland. Deemed as such from that first layover in 2003 when I bought Renee an overpriced shot glass and could afford nothing else. Tourism is on the rise which made it an interesting time as ever to explore the land of ice and sea and to put myself into deep debt.

One thing I hadn’t done was mentally prepare for the lack of light, extreme cold, shortage of vegetables or the draining expense. My biggest dilemma of all while packing was whether I bring snow boots or hiking boots; and I had no regrets of leaving anything luxury behind and bringing both!

In our 5 days exploring trendy downtown Reykjavik, the famed natural beauty of the Golden Circle and the Black Sand Beach of coastal Vik, there were a few things I was surprised to learn along the way.

Downtown Reykjavik

Downtown Reykjavik

1. Weather
They say weather in Iceland is unpredictable, snowing one minute and dry hours later. Yes, it is Iceland after all but I’ve never before experienced the fury of mother nature as I did at her best there. A snowstorm of fluffy snowflakes on our first day made it feel like Christmas, contrasted against heavy rain and hail with wind so strong an umbrella was useless on our second.

Driving back from Vik, the steering wheel would shake as heavy snow was blown across the arctic tundra onto the road, so fast and thick you couldn’t see in front without searching for the yellow marker on the side of the road. On that day it was so fierce I could barely open the car door to take a quick snap of Skogafoss waterfall but it was worth it!

Skogafoss

Skogafoss

Slippery, black, and constant, there is no shortage of ice and Iceland is well named for its surplus of frozen water in the winter months. Traveling to the arctic on budget-airline easyJet, I was frustrated my flight was delayed only to have learned by a friend who had already landed, the wind at Keflavik Airport was so strong she sat on the tarmac for 2-hours because it was too windy to bring the exit stairs to the plane door.

If heading to Iceland in the winter you will need a hooded lined jacket, snow and/or hiking boots, thermal layers, waterproof gloves and a good hat to keep the heat in. The lowest it got was -6C (21F) but the windchill was so unbearable at times I don’t want to dream of knowing what it actually was.

2 . Self-drive is the way to go
On the one side renting a car allows you the flexibility to choose your own adventure whilst maximizing the few hours of daylight you have. On the flipside, when two Australian’s volunteer to drive then only realize once it’s too late that neither has driven on the other side of the road or in the snow, we might either truly have a proper road trip or a serious problem.

Trying something different, we opted to try Carrenters, an Airbnb-style car rental company where locals rent out their cars to tourists, and insurance and such is legit. In fact, we found the locals so nice and accommodating it came as a bit of surprise especially when we were in the wrong. Our car rental was actually about a 15-minute drive outside of the city, but our rental gladly dropped it off and picked it up from the city center to make things easier for us clueless tourists.

The road signs aren’t the best so I advise using a GPS to read out the few turns in advance. As the roads can be very icy, even on popular routes of the Golden Circle or down the south coast to Vik, utilize daylight hours to the best of your ability, drive slow and be prepared for volatile weather.

In a place where the primary attraction is the natural beauty, it honestly looks as if you are on another planet, self-drive gives you the opportunity to go slow through the landscape as it so drastically changes at each turn; to pull over to pet wild Icelandic horses, or to arrive into your next destination witnessing majestic sunsets and sunrises.

Wind storm during sunrise on the Black Sand Beach, Vik

Wind storm during sunrise on the Black Sand Beach, Vik

It can be eery when setting off, being in the middle of nowhere in deep fog with few cars around, snow tornados dancing on the landscape, driving further into what feels like a white nowhereland, but it also means you can time your visits to the popular attractions when the masses of tour buses are elsewhere and you can chase the Northern Lights night after night.

Big applause and thank you to Jake who put in the tiring hours, kept us safe during crazy weather, and made it awesome!

3.  The great outdoors
It goes without saying that seeing the Northern Lights was my biggest goal for this trip and I’m sad to share that I never saw them, yet! The wild winter weather meant that most evenings the skies were cloudy, the opposite requirement for the dancing light spectacle.

The closest we got however was on a clear night in Vik. After a great meal and awesome service at Suður-Vík, we hiked up past the town’s cute little church on the top of the hill, albeit a bit buzzed with a local beer in hand, and stared into the night sky. The North Star shined so bright I finally got why it was such a big deal. A new discovery came as we stumbled upon the church’s cemetery. Illuminated crosses lit up the graveyard, a huge surprise but a totally cool experience, honoring Christmas tradition.

Not far from Vik is the magnificent, and ever melting Sólheimajökull glacier (a part of the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap). Icepicks and crampons were required for our 3-hour glacier hike with Arcanum Glacier Tours led by chatty Maya. More fascinating than the details of the glacier and the rate at which it’s melting was the fact that neighboring volcano Katla could blow this century and the emergency back up plans are so outdated that the farmhouse a few miles down the road could never cater for the 3,000ish tourists who climb the glacier each day.

Start to Sólheimajökull glacier hike

Start to Sólheimajökull glacier hike

The Golden Circle is a must drive for any visitor to do once. While it’s not a circle, it certainly is a loop of approx. 237k, typically starting at Þingvellir National Park where the North American & Eurasian tectonic plates are split apart creating deep fissures in the ground. Many go scuba diving or snorkeling in the fissure called Silfa which is full of freezing glacier water but that surely didn’t sound too appealing to me.

The next stop is Geysir in Haukadalur, where geothermal pools bubble and geysers erupt at the surprise of the masses of tourists who stand around to witness. The colors alone are spectacular in addition to the water shooting up to 100 feet from Strokkur every 15 minutes or so.

Geothermal pool Geysir

Geothermal pool Geysir

Gulfoss waterfalls puts Niagara to shame! Very icy were the paths to get across both the upper and lower viewpoints to watch the Hvítá river viciously flow over various ravines and into the deep earth below.

Gullfoss waterfall

Gullfoss waterfall

Like something out of a movie, seeing the ice form lines in Kerið Crater Lake was beautiful and I only could imagine how piercing blue the water must be when not frozen. Despite an entry fee to maintain the grounds, it was totally worth walking the perimeter as the sunset over the neighboring mountains.

Kerið volcanic crater lake

Kerið volcanic crater lake

4. Food
There is a big divide between great food in Iceland, and things you don’t want to write home about. Then again, your budget alone may determine if you will eat well at all. In addition, there was strong evidence of a lack of green vegetables, compensated by really good potatoes with every meal, and unluckily for us the local fisherman were on strike.

In Reykjavik, new restaurants are popping up all over town to cater for the surplus of tourists thanks to Icelandair’s clever marketing and free layovers between the US and Europe. Of those we tried, I recommend:

Messin: On our first night the 3 of us shared the traditional Icelandic dish of fish stew. In our unexpected favor, cod was the only fish on offer due to the strike and bad weather. One giant pan was served with mashed fish, garlic, white wine and cream, dressed with potatoes (as is everything), lime and cherry tomatoes accompanied with customary sweet local rye bread. A very moreish meal indeed.

Ostabudin: This delicatessen and restaurant is one of the most popular in town and for good reason, the menu is limited but standout. We shared an over generous cheese board before devouring the arctic char and salted cod, ‘must-haves’ if you are in Iceland.

Baejarins Beztu Pylsur: I would have never imagined I would stand in a line for 45 minutes for a hot dog but let me tell you IT WAS WORTH IT! There’s a reason why The Guardian named it the best hot dog stand in Europe. Go with ‘the works’ and let them pile on all the toppings including ketchup, sweet mustard, fried onion, raw onion and remolaði, a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish aka the special sauce. The combo of all of the above made me wish I got two!

Baejarins Beztu Pylsur

Baejarins Beztu Pylsur

There are other traditional Icelandic dishes to try like smoked trout (the smokiest I’ve ever tried anywhere), rye bread ice cream and Jake took one for the team and tried fermented shark followed by a shot of local liquor Brennin to remove the taste. “Tastes like feet and smells like rubbing alcohol,” he said. Your breath after is apparently the worst, and I was even still going to give it a shot until I saw Rob gag. If interested, touristy Café Loki across from Iceland’s largest church Hallgrímskirkja is your spot.

Iceland's largest church Hallgrímskirkja

Iceland’s largest church Hallgrímskirkja

Note that most cafes open late since it’s dark until about 11 am. That can make it a bit difficult to find a cafe for a good coffee or breakfast if heading off in the early am.

5. Drink
For one, I never expected Iceland to have such fantastic local brews. Even more surprising is the locals don’t know much about them. There were a lot of Christmas beers on tap, with a tradition for most local breweries to change them up each year. That meant that we were often asked which Christmas brew we wanted to try, but no one could actually explain how it tastes other than “Christmas”.

Common brews are Viking and Gull but our favorites were the numbered microbrews from Borg such as Leifur Nordic Saison NR. 32 and Garún Icelandic Stout NR.19 as well as a variety from Einstock. Happy hour does exist at most bars so take advantage of it and save yourself the ISK.

The overall lesson is, they like their beer and have some good ones, just don’t ask them what it tastes like or if you can have a try otherwise they will be dumbfounded.

If you like wine expect it to be overpriced and underrated, totally not worth it. For a great whisky selection, you could spend all day at relaxed rock bar Dillon on the main street Laugavegur.

And don’t be that tourist and buy bottled water. The local water is as fresh as it comes, although because of the sulfur the smell may have you guessing otherwise.

There were tons more interesting and fascinating elements to this trip but that simply means I’ll just have to return once my wallet replenishes. In the meantime, here are a few more snaps to enjoy:

Taken from the Black Sand Beach, Vik

Taken from the Black Sand Beach, Vik

Wedding photo NYE bonfire Reykjavik

Wedding photo NYE bonfire Reykjavik

Blue lagoon, Iceland

Blue lagoon, Iceland

The whitewashed town of Vik from the Black Sand Beach

The whitewashed town of Vik from the Black Sand Beach

Sólheimajökull glacier

Sólheimajökull glacier

Champagne Tasting in Epernay, Champagne

27 Oct

Champers, bubbly, the good stuff – everyone has their preference for a nickname but no matter what you call it, one thing is plain as day, Champagne is one of the most sophisticated drinks in the world. Luckily for me, getting to Champagne from London isn’t as difficult as one may think.

Keep calm and drink champagne!

Keep calm and drink champagne!

My friend Emily sold it to me very easily. She said it’s as simple as hopping on the one-hour and ten-minute train from Gare de Est in Paris to Epernay, the heart of Champagne production. From there it’s easy enough to spend the afternoon roaming up and down picturesque Avenue de Champagne for a few tastings in the handful of Champagne houses that line the street. After that, it’s a quick cab into the countryside for a multi-course fine dining experience at gastronomic Chateau Etoges, and back onto the train home the next day. As the French would say, walla!

Andy Wahloo cocktail bar, Paris

Andy Wahloo cocktail bar, Paris

To break up the trip, the girls and I modified the plan slightly. We took a late Friday afternoon Eurostar into Paris and spent the short evening in town. It gave us just enough time to chow down at the trendy Moroccan restaurant 404 before a quick cocktail at neighboring Andy Wahloo, easily confused for Andy Warhol with its funky vibe. We went to bed early enough that a croquet monsieur for breakfast did just the trick on the morning train northwest up to the Champagne province.

Avenue de Champagne, Epernay

Avenue de Champagne, Epernay

Aside from the famed Avenue, Epernay itself seemed a bit dated. Historically, Epernay was where the Champagne was produced and up-market Reims was where it was sold. Besides an old-school CD and photocopier shop and a market sourcing fresh fish, meat, vegetables, cheese, and flowers, there wasn’t much else to do. That only meant one thing, we better do what this town does best and get our Champagne tasting on!

Moet & Chandon gift shop

Moet & Chandon gift shop

Moët & Chandon is massive, but it’s one of those places that has to be done at least once. The stark white interior and polished gift shop said it all, but then again the brands are owned by Louis Vuitton, the largest luxury producer in the world. In fact, 10% of Champagne production in the region comes from the Moët & Chandon house.

What’s great about a guided tour is that you really do learn a lot, and it’s even a nice refresher on what you may already know. Yes, sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it’s actually from the region itself, but I always thought it was just Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. There is actually a third grape that sneaks in too, Pinot Meunier.

Pouring bubbles at Moet & Chandon

Pouring bubbles at Moet & Chandon

Even more fascinating is that there is a labyrinth of over 110 kilometers of cellars in Epernay, all running underground the city, some going multiple layers deep. It’s the clay in the terroir which is why Champagne can truly only be called as such if produced in this region alone.

Magnum of Champagne at Moet & Chandon

Magnum of Champagne at Moet & Chandon

There are 3 types of tastings offered at the end of the tour, Traditional (one glass of Moët Impérial, Impérial (one glass of Impérial and one glass of Rosé Impérial), and Grand Vintage (one glass of Vintage 2008 and one glass of Rosé Vintage 2008). We only had the Traditional however I’m so grateful to my friend Jaime who gave me a bottle of their latest, Vintage 2008, for my birthday this year.

Gates of Collard-Picard

Gates of Collard-Picard

The courtyard of Collard-Picard was one of our favorite stops. We were so lucky that the sun was shining and it wasn’t too brisk being the end of October. In fact, the Prestige bottle we shared over gossip and giggles was the best of the day and the only one that made the journey back to London with me. Maybe it’s because the grapes were all derived from prestigious Grand-Cru classified terroirs.

The most special of all was the VIP private tour at de Castellane courtesy of Grape Escapes. Taking a short detour off of the famed Avenue, when I caught sight of the magnificent tower that trademarks the town my mouth did a big drop and I let out a huge “wow.”  Even better, our fast-talking guide Paulina was the best and took us to the top at the close of the tour. She taught us all about the game of champagne making, from deciding when to keep a vintage which you should keep from 10 years onward, or when to blend it into a non-vintage if the taste starts to turn for the worse over time.

If planning a visit to de Castellane, I would recommend doing a guided tour during the week, where you can see the live production line in action. For the four of us however, the underground museum was still very educational and built further on what we learned earlier in the day. What made the tour so special was the visit to the private offices, which housed over 7,000 champagne labels – a marketers dream.

Private VIP tasting room at de Castellane

Private VIP tasting room at de Castellane

We then relaxed in big brown leather chairs for our private tasting of both the Brut and Rosé. We definitely overstayed our welcome but it was the perfect environment to unwind and ask Paulina countless questions about champagne and wine production. In fact, we stayed so long we finished both bottles and Soph left with the hiccups!

Fois gras served in a smile at La Table Kobus, Epernay

Fois gras served in a smile at La Table Kobus, Epernay

After a day long of Champagne tasting there was only one thing left to do, find the perfect bottle from the experts at 520 Champagne et Vins D’auteurs and enjoy it over a classic French meal. La Table Kobus was spot on, Michelin recommended and the menu made our mouths begin to drool before any food was even served. The fois gras was like butter and beautifully presented. The steak and cod were perfectly prepared. Restaurants in town can be limited so book in advance and take advantage of their BYOB policy (corkage fee applies on weekends).

Only one question still remains, should I have tried the frog legs?

Taste Porto

11 Oct

If there’s one thing you must do in Porto it’s Taste Porto downtown food walking tour. One of the best ways to truly understand a city and the cultural drivers is through food. Food is cultural expression.

Besties Lisa Vecchio & Nidya Bellido in Proto.

Besties Lisa Vecchio & Nidya Bellido in Porto.

We met our guide André near Mercado do Bolhão in Porto’s city center. “I can promise you food, wine and caffeine,” he boasted, gearing us up for the next 3.5 hours of indulgence. We were guaranteed some of the best food in Porto, all from local producers. As many tourists would expect to have tripe (intestines) and port; André made sure we tried a few things off the beaten path.

André co-founded Taste Porto with his high school mate Miguel and his wife Carly. Although he trained at university as an engineer, his passion of Portuguese food is what brought this little tour together. Early on we were given a big thank you for our involvement, as a portion of our fee went to the AMI charity.

Pasteis de Chaves

Pasteis de Chaves

From our first stop trying the light, flaky pastries of Chaves, a small city in Northern Portugal, I knew it was going to be good. Only half of the normal sized portion, we tasted savory minced veal with parsley and a dark chocolate filling as our second. To be called such a pastry you must pass the designation of origin, similar to how Champagne can only be called when made in Champagne and Port similarly. Luckily the brother and sister owners of A loja dos Pasteis de Chaves been approved by the city of origin itself.

Andre demonstrating the sardines at Bolhão Wine House

Andre demonstrating the sardines at Bolhão Wine House

My favorite stop was Bolhão Wine House in Mercado do Bolhão. This was not only because owners Patricia and Hugo have transformed their grandmother’s old flower shop into a cute wine bar, but also because the market itself is a must see for any visitor. It has a little bit of everything; from a hair dresser to a butcher to the freshest food, veg and fish you can find in the city. Even the local hotels and restaurants source from there. Luckily for us it was the perfect time of year for fresh, fat sardines so we tried a few samples of tinned sardines, olive oil from the Douro Valley, a traditional cheese pastry (queijadinha) and some muscat wine at the market’s wine house. We were also lucky to try some paio-de lombo, or smoked pork loin, from the neighboring butcher as well. What’s a shame is the market will be shut down while undergoing a 2-year renovation from March. André and the regulars fear the worst during this time for the local economy.

Salsicharia Leandro (sausage factory) in Mercado Bolhao, Porto

Salsicharia Leandro (sausage factory) in Mercado do Bolhao, Porto

We moved on to what can only be described as a flavor explosion. At Flor dos Congregados we were served a double-decker sandwich, Sandes Terylene, warm crusty bread on the outside soaked with the gravy of juicy pork and sweet cured ham on the soft inside. Slow cooked, the famed sandwich takes 24-hours to prepare at this 164-year-old restaurant. Upon being served the sandwich, one of the 8-year-old twins who joined their parents on our tour cried out in excitement,“that looks crazy!” before devouring it.

Being served Sandes Terylene at Flor dos Congregados

Being served Sandes Terylene at Flor dos Congregados

Quite aching in the belly at that point, our next stop was for “an espresso in a teacup, well, because this place is fancy” at the historical Café Guarany, followed by sweet eclairs at Leitaria Da Quinta Do Paco. We finished off the tour, having moved on from strangers to friends over the last few hours, to share charcuterie and wine at the small wine bar Taberna Do Largo. Nidya and I stayed on well after the tour ended and shared a few more yellow bean lupins and wine from the small local producers.

I couldn’t applaud André enough. His affable personality coupled with his passion for showcasing food made the entire tour a pleasure. In fact, I was even so surprised at how well he handled the small children on the tour as well, always making them feel welcome by offering them ‘grape juice’ while us adults had wine and he watched them closely on the busy streets.

What I like most about Taste Porto is their general regard for just having a good time with food. They’ll even run the tour with just 1 person, and never more than 10. Even better, we were given a sheet with full details of where we went and what we ate, followed by recommendations for some other great spots in town; and an email summarizing our day to follow it up.

Knocking to enter the townhouse of Rosa Et Al to attend Secret Garden Supper Club

Knocking to enter the townhouse of Rosa Et Al to attend Secret Garden Supper Club

When Taste Porto invited us to the Secret Garden Supper Club 5-course degustation the following weekend how could we refuse? Set in a townhouse in the art district, Rosa Et Al is also where Taste Porto host their equally well-regarded cooking classes. Just 4 other pairs joined us along with André, Taste Porto marketing guru Marisa, Italian coffee roaster turned bartender Geo, and the brother and sister owners and chefs Patricia and Emanuel.

The table setting of Secret Garden Supper Club at Rosa Et Al

The table setting of Secret Garden Supper Club at Rosa Et Al

Candles lit in the back garden, it was such a warming atmosphere getting to know the couples from Melbourne and the US as we casually made small talk over our first cocktail. Unfortunately before the first course was finished being served, the heavens opened up and the rain poured down. It made for a cozy evening sitting around the table inside, going from lobster tail to beef cheek and finally endless cheese and dessert. The best part was having Patricia and Emanuel join us at different points in the meal so we could learn more about their passion for food, Portuguese architecture and entrepreneurship.

Traditional Portuguese Cheese Boards; Black Mission Figs, Walnuts, Wild Flowers Honey and Cinnamon Bread Toasts at Secret Garden Dinner Club

Traditional Portuguese Cheese Boards; Black Mission Figs, Walnuts, Wild Flowers Honey and Cinnamon Bread Toasts

You’re probably wondering about the port though, but that’s a story for another day. When next in Porto and hungry, you know who to call…Taste Porto.

Pintxos Fever in San Sebastián ​

27 Sep

I must have gained 10 lbs at least. Pintxos for breakfast, pintxos for lunch and more pintxos for dinner. I’m not complaining though. I certainly would call my first visit to San Sebastián in Basque Country Spain a success.

Pintxos, San Sebastian

Pintxos, San Sebastian

Pintxos are sort of a form of tapas, bite-sized snacks typically served on a small piece of crusty bread in northern Spain. It’s common ground for both locals and tourists to stand at the bar, napkins thrown on the floor, as you help yourself from wooden boards sitting out on the countertop with everything from Jamon (cured Spanish ham), gambas (shrimp), anchovies, croquettes, imitation crab meat and goats cheese to some really interesting and unique ones, each place having its own specialty and recipes. They are best paired with a local vino tinto (red wine) from neighboring Rioja or a garagardo (Basque for beer).

Some places are really good at the honor system and keep track of what you’ve taken while you munch away, while others you must first show your plate to the bartender then pay before taking a seat. Once we finally arrived in the pintxos capital of the world San Sebastián it was non-stop snacking.

I met my Australian bestie Nidya in the industrial port city of Bilbao, as it was an easy place to sync up. I was just a short flight from London but Nidya made the long journey from Brisbane to Singapore to Zurich then finally Bilbao. Hotel Abando was perfectly situated for our one night stop off. It gave us an opportunity to catch up and get our first taste of the famed Basque delicacy of pintxos at notorious Café Iruña, then a few others along Ledesma Musikariaren Kalea, a foodie’s dream street, before making the hour journey north the following morning.

Nidya and Lisa selfie at Pintxos bar on Ledesma Musikariaren Kalea

Nidya and Lisa selfie at Pintxos bar on Ledesma Musikariaren Kalea

In Basque they speak their own language Euskal Herria so Nidya’s native Spanish from growing up in Peru didn’t necessarily always get us far. She even admitted it’s not what it used to be as it’s now more of a form of Span-glish, but it still was a big help which defaulted her the role of interpreter at times.

Pension Goiko, in the heart of the compact streets of Old Town (Parte Viaje), San Sebastian was a cross between a hostel and budget hotel suitable for both backpackers and couples. The location was unquestionable. The beach was just a short stroll away as well. One thing that didn’t go unnoticed is the noise from the alcohol-fuelled night owls who filled the streets till the early morning. I’d argue however that you would likely get the same problem anywhere in Old Town so just bring ear plugs and enjoy being in the thick of it.

Unfortunately it rained all weekend but we still managed a walk along the beach and through the picturesque port. We were delighted to come across  fresh oysters in the middle of yet another rain storm, but we weren’t too fussed as it was a great excuse to escape the cold, wet weather. I can only imagine how beautiful the sea would look on a sunny day as the town is known as a surfer’s paradise.

The city was a lot larger than I imagined, with Old Town, two beaches, and the local neighborhoods, there was plenty to do. Known for it’s Michelin starred restaurants, we couldn’t get in so last minute so we stuck to the narrow cobblestone streets of Old Town. My favorite pintxos bars were La Cepa for their melt in your mouth Jamon – seriously it was the most magical and sensory thing I’ve ever eaten; Casa Alcalde for their house vino tinto, and Nagusia Lau for their great pintxos selection including morcilla and fresh octopus. Other popular spots include Taberna Gandarias, La Cuchara de San Telmo, and Bar Nestor although we were so caught up we never made it to those.

San Sebastián Old Town

San Sebastián Old Town

Atari was the real deal when it came to a more formal dinner. Ordering off their raciones (small portions) menu we stuffed ourselves with beef cheek, local fish of hake, and squid with black squid ink. All the tables were fully booked ahead but we were lucky one came free just as we arrived. Even better, the bar turns into one of the hottest after dinner spots in town, as both locals and tourists take their Aperol spritz on to the steps of neighboring church Iglesia de Santa Maria to mingle under the stars.

When the rain finally cleared the following day we stumbled across Mercado de la Bretxa on the cusp of Old Town. On Saturdays the fruit and produce vendors are out, replaced by craftsman on Sundays. Luckily for us, there was a fundraiser taking place for a few hours that we passed by with just chance. We watched a gastronomic cook-off on one side of the market, amateur chefs competing on who makes the best salsa-verde. On the other side, they were dishing out local beer Keller accompanied by merluza (fresh hake fish, lightly battered and fried). A local informed us this was the real deal in terms of authenticity, as two seconds later a small marching band formed, strumming and blowing their horns to traditional Basque songs. 

 

As the San Sebastián Film Festival was on that weekend it made for some interesting additional fun. Later that afternoon our noses lead us to the Japanese pop up Cinema Caravan. We sat out on the wet stone steps of a schoolyard sipping sake and eating takoyaki (fried octopus balls) while watching a video installation against the old walls and jamming along to the DJ set. Later that night while sipping Basque craft beer we chatted to Bertrand from Bordeaux. He was in town for the film festival and gave Nidya some insider tips for her next stop in Barcelona while I sat trying to make sense of his broken english, Spanish with a french accent, and Nidya’s translations.

Port of San Sebastian

Port of San Sebastian

Our luck would have it that on our final day the sun finally came out! It gave us the perfect reason to walk off all our pintxos calories as we hiked to the top of Monte Urgell to witness the famed Statue of Jesus, and stunning views over the sea.

So the biggest question remains, when can I go back?

 

Reconnecting with Madrid 

12 Sep

The last time I was in Madrid was April 2003. I was a 19-year-old study abroad student living in London and had just spent the last few weeks backpacking around Europe with a few other American students. We started in Italy and went from Rome to Pisa then to the picturesque seaside towns in Cinque Terre. Shortly after a few of us split off after spending time in the south of France and took an overnight train from Nice on into Spain. I remember sleeping on the bottom bunk of a sleeper car for just a few hours after staying up most of the night drinking beers and playing cards.

We hadn’t really thought the itinerary very well through. I don’t think we ever even looked at a map to quantify the distance. This was still when we were early adopters of the Internet and needed to pay at an Internet cafe to use it. We did not have cell phones and solely relied on word of mouth advice and guide books. All I knew was that I had to get to Madrid by a certain date as that’s where my flight back to London was booked.

At some point in the long journey our train stopped. “Everyone out!” Completely confused, myself and my travel companions got up and tried to urge the conductor that we must continue on! Our train tickets clearly stated that we were booked all the way through. We were told the next free train from Barcelona was in three DAYS!!!

Laura was expected to fly out from Madrid (623km away) that night. If she missed her flight she would surely miss her connection back to the US the following day. But it was Easter weekend. We were too clueless to know that everything shut down for Easter in a holy city. Laura unfortunately had to call her parents to get some money for an emergency flight from Barcelona back to London. Unplanned yet unphased, Kari and I stayed back.

We stood in the middle of Barcelona Sants railway station perplexed but still casually agreed to throw in the towel and make the most out of the unexpected stopover. A new city at least! As we began brainstorming our options two male backpackers who were next to us overheard our situation. “You’re stuck here too? We’ve been here for days.” We got chatting and they suggested we try a cheap hostel in the city center which they had stayed at earlier in the week. Weary, yet considering we had no other option, we went along.

One was a pilot for British Airways. He validated it and all and so with my passion for travel we agreed they couldn’t be all that bad. In fact, they were true gentleman. For the next three days they gave us a personal tour of the whole city. They knew what to do and where to go. We dined along touristy Las Ramblas, learned the history of the famed church La Sagrada Familia, and roamed the parks sipping sangria from giant juice boxes with straws. On the last day they walked our heavy duffle bags to the train, we said goodbye, and that was that. Just simple pleasantries of genuine strangers with no funny business.

As soon as we arrived in Madrid Kari headed straight to the airport. I was left alone. This was my first time traveling truly by myself and I must admit I was a bit scared. I had some confidence from roaming around Europe the past few weeks to give me a boost, but I was also just ready to go home to London.

I remember being very hungry but I was too nervous to attempt to speak Spanish to buy anything. With some remaining credit left on a calling card I had, I went to a pay phone on a street corner and called my mom. Really I just wanted to chat to a familiar voice and pass the time. I was a wuss. Instead of enjoying the city I went to the established Prado Museum. If I’m honest, it wasn’t because I was into art. I don’t even particularly enjoy museums but I just wanted somewhere that felt safe to go.

I remember being ecstatic to come across mega stores Top Shop and Zara. Despite being too broke to buy anything, the familiarity of the stores and the appeal of something I could relate to calmed me. Shortly afterwards my day was done and I was off to the airport and back in London. It felt forever those hours alone on the streets of Madrid but as soon as they were done I looked back proud of myself for staying street smart and learning more about my personal strengths. I had really challenged myself that day.

13 years later I visited Madrid again, but oh how much had changed since that first visit. Both with myself and my confidence to travel as well as what I get enjoyment from when exploring a city. I was lucky this time though, as I wasn’t alone. I joined Alex on his journey driving roundtrip from London to Madrid and we met up at his halfway point.

Having been turned off by Spain since that first journey many years ago I’m now a converted woman. Glorious weather, fabulous architecture, and most importantly, the amazing food. Sure, it’s been a while since I’ve last been in Spain so it took me a couple of hours to feel comfortable speaking broken Spanish and ordering food but my gosh what we ate was out of this world!

Los Gatos, Madrid

Los Gatos, Madrid

Our first night we stumbled across Los Gatos cervecerias and were blown away by the voluptuous olives, smoked sardines and stuffed octopus. The goat cheese salad was sweet with balsamic but warm and perfect with apple and walnuts. The decor, the simple tapas and the cute location on Calle de Jesús made it the perfect first stop. And we might have thought cervecerias was short for ceviche but we were just silly and naive as it, of course, means brewery or more or less a bar.

El Rasto, Madrid

El Rasto, Madrid

I’m glad I took the time to explore Madrid on foot. I did some basic research in advance and ‘starred’ some hot spots on Google Maps. Luckily for us Sunday is market day at El Rasto, a local flea market selling everything from shoes, hats and clothes to simple tourist nicknacks. We grabbed empanadas from the side of the market to keep us going. Where the market ends we found a slew of local cervercerias. Unlike most European cities where Sunday finds the whole city shut down and quiet, the streets of Madrid were alive with both locals and tourists, and each tapas bar we visited was busy with regulars having a Sunday afternoon snack with an accompanying beer.

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Garden and view at Real Basilica de San Francisco el Grande

A short walk on we uncovered Real Basilica de San Francisco el Grande, which despite being closed still had spectacular views. From here it was only a few minutes to my favorite building at the heart of Madrid, Palacio Real de Madrid – the royal palace. We sat on the steps of Catedral de la Almudena listening to an accordion player serenade us as we overlooked the magnificent structure.

Palacio Real de Madrid

Palacio Real de Madrid

Walking to the enormous outdoor park Casa de Campo was worth the distance to witness the massive public grounds. Surprised by how much dry dirt rather then greenery was present, the best part was stumbling across the beautiful recreational lake. Families and couples rented row boats and we sat observing in the shade at La Bicicleta taking an escape from the heat. Although there was a huge family celebrating with spurts of laughter and champagne being shared, I was still weary to eat the crabs and octupus sat out in the heat, but the complimentary potato chips standard at most cafes was still appreciated.

La Vuelta, Via Grande, Madrid

La Vuelta, Gran Via, Madrid

Our accommodation was centrally located on the busy shopping artery of Gran Via, which made getting around the city on foot amazingly accessible. The famed cycling race La Vuelta came right past us on Sunday evening and it was incredible to see in person how fast and talented they truly are. Tapas Tapas on neighboring Calle de la Montera may have been a chain but was still delicious and perfect for people watching. The true gem however was Viandas de Salamanca jamon bar that served out of this world cured ham on baguettes, freshly sliced meat to go and more.

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Viandas de Salamanca, Madrid

Another popular tourist stop is the El Teleférico cable car that overlooks the city. Unfortunately we found out the hard way that it was shut, but that didn’t stop us from walking through some amazing gardens and witnessing another spectacular view of the royal palace. Even better, the hard-earned walk gave us an excuse to go to San Gines, the most popular stop for churros in the city.

 

San Gines Chocolateria

San Gines Chocolateria

Clearly my appreciation for Spain has matured from apprehension to pure love for all things Spanish. Luckily, I’m off to Michelin Star haven and pintxos capital San Sebastian tomorrow.

My Norway in a Nutshell Itinerary

10 Sep

Welcome to the land of a million waterfalls, trolls, and Vikings. Where every corner you turn the dramatic landscape changes within the blink of an eye. Where seafood is fresh and abundant and your pocket is constantly empty from the astronomical cost of EVERYTHING.

Huge troll at Voss train station, Norway

Huge troll at Voss train station, Norway

Clever Norway tourism coupled the best bits of the region’s most popular sites and made hopping around to them very easy through their Norway in a Nutshell itineraries. Simple and effective, anyone, all ages can easily book online and craft an itinerary through breathtaking landscapes and (no longer) hidden secret places either on their own or as part of a guided group.

Jamie and I decided however that we would go rogue and take the best of Norway in a Nutshell and craft our own agenda while booking independently. We worked out that albeit slightly more expensive since the box-set tours book the cheapest train times, which aren’t always convenient, this gave us more flexibility to stay where we wanted on our own clock.

Even better, budget airline Norwegian Air run flights daily from London Gatwick. Flights can be reasonably priced and include free Wi-Fi on board.

Lisa & Jaime’s Norway in a Nutshell itinerary:

Day 1: Bergen

Bryggen, Bergen

Bryggen, Bergen

Known to be the cutest and most picturesque in the country, I wish I had more than just one day to explore this coastal city. Apparently it’s also the happiest place in the country too. We rented an Air BnB from an attractive local, centrally located between the train station and the historic area of Bryygen.

Despite a down pouring of rain all afternoon, our efforts to explore were not tainted. I tried my first (of many) classic fish soups over lunch at Café Opera, a casual bar and restaurant situated in the heart of the city across from the Opera. In fact, I didn’t realize at the time how affordable the food truly was there. It was where I first learned how large portions in Norway can be, evidenced by Jaime’s huge salad, so you could argue the astronomical costs are value for money.

The wooden boardwalk streets and pointed houses of historic Bryggen are so cute they definitely visually ticked the box of classic Norway in my mind. The entire city, and country for that matter, plays the part and is dressed for the outdoors and the brisk summer cold. Yes, you read that right, 50 F degrees in August.  It reminded Jaime of a mini-Seattle, each shop selling lightweight puffers, wool, reindeer slippers and of course, the iconic country mascot – the troll.

To escape the rain we stopped in at Una, a modern bar serving a range of over 20 craft beers on tap plus a wide selection in bottles. It was there we met Skip, a 70-ish-year-old American from Virginia who had been traveling around Europe solo for the last five months. Looking like a hippie version of Santa Claus, we couldn’t help but be friendly and share a beer to hear about his wild stories of a 3-week rage in Greece; learn that Bergen is considered the Nashville of heavy metal deemed as such by Crazy Dennis who runs the nearby music venue The Garage, and politely excused ourselves after finishing up with the full history of his ex-wife and funeral home business.

The night ended walking through the quiet backstreets of the hillside above the city, then on to dinner in the heart of the fish market. King crab claws, lobster, mussels, and prawns at Fish Me. Some things in life are worth the splurge in cash.

Day 2: Voss

The view over Vangsvatnet, Voss

The view over Vangsvatnet, Voss

Known as the adventure capital of Norway and home to Extreme Sports Week, this was one stop on the Norway in a Nutshell’s standard itinerary we changed to accommodate a full day of adrenaline pumping fun. So we decided to go paragliding! If you aren’t familiar with the concept, we basically ran down a hill then off the side of the mountain. Then we safely floated over the amazing scenery of Vangsvatnet Lake, mountains and the small town, thanks to the large glider attached to my tandem pilot’s back.

Pargaliding over Voss, Norway

Pargaliding over Voss, Norway

It was totally awesome! I enjoyed it so much more than my skydiving experience in New Zealand (read here) as there is no free fall at all.  Basically, I hung out on a comfy seat floating about the world like Edward Cullen in Twilight for a quick five minutes before landing in a run on the ground. You start with a run, which I apparently still did for a long time once airborne, and land in a run as well. I also started screaming before I even left the ground but I must note that at no point did I ever feel unsafe.

The best part about Voss Tandem is that it’s all certified. The booking system is also super easy. I put in my contact details and date, and a few minutes later I had a text from Biorjan, my pilot, confirming I was booked. Almost too easy! Jaime referenced my booking in a second submission and the two pilots hooked up behind the scenes to ensure we could ‘fly’ together.

Paraglider coming in for landing

Paraglider coming in for landing

Biorjan told me his whole story to calm my nerves. He’s been jumping off things such as this since 2005, is a carpenter by trade and does it for fun to help support his new born twins. I knew most of that though because I looked him up on Facebook in advance and the pictures of him gliding off of a mountain with a parachute wearing a pair of skies gave me the confidence I needed. I almost tried to trade Jamie though after learning that her pilot Oyvan is somewhat of a local legend, the ‘grandfather of paragliding’ they say.

Following our big success, it was straight down to the popular Tre Brør (Three Brothers) in town for a magnificently huge and delicious cheeseburger coupled with a beer from the Voss Brewery.

Day 3: Stalheim

View of Nærøy Valley from the Stalheim Hotel

View of Nærøy Valley from the Stalheim Hotel

If you ever wondered what a cross between the Grand Budapest Hotel and the hotel featured in the thriller The Shining would be like, then the Stalheim Hotel is worth a visit. Once the golden hotel of Norway in the 80s, it certainly has seen its day.  But what draws the tour buses and tourists stopping in off of on their Norway in a Nutshell adventures is simply, the view!

After finishing up in Voss it made sense to us to go the short distance to the hotel to relax for the night before carrying on. And I must urge, if you don’t stay in a room with a view you shouldn’t stay here at all. Sure, it’s cute with baby pink linen, a mint green bathtub with powder blue tiles and has a very weird charm to it and all but for the most expensive accommodation on our trip (again, we were paying for the view) you’d at least expect a working ice machine, an upgrade from paper cups, a step up from generic toiletries in the bathroom, and a functioning gift shop.

The lobby confused me, and maybe that was the point. Furniture from many different periods scattered between rooms set against fire places, cozy corners, and the huge windows that looked out to the famed ‘view’. But when there is nothing around but the great outdoors, confined to an overpriced, tired buffet attended by large Asian tour groups and a few honeymooners, dinner did the trick, but only just.  A sneaky hint of peanuts in the pesto sauce nearly set Jaime’s allergy off. Even scarier, this is a country that takes food allergies very seriously as signs with food contents and potential allergens are posted in nearly every eatery.

“Excuse me what type of deer is this? Rein?” At least we tried the country’s meal of choice, reindeer, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to ask without being awkward if it was the real thing. Good news though, she nodded back with a yes.

Despite waking up to rain in the morning, the second best part was then driving down from the top of the mountain through ‘the view’. A super-steep, windy road took us away from the hotel, further into the Nærøy Valley. Stunning waterfalls, 25 in the Valley alone to be precise, sprung from each corner as the countryside further presented itself.

Day 4:  Nærøyfjord

Rain has clear on Nærøyfjord

Rain has cleared on Nærøyfjord

On my bucket list for years has been to see the famed fjords of Norway. So here we were, boarding a vessel at Gudvangen to take us 2.5 hour through the most famed and picturesque fjords of the country, and it was pissing rain! Everyone knows everything looks better in the sun. Reduced visibility from the fog and clouds, I can still say that it was totally awesome.

Sure, the whole boat is full of tourists, but like anywhere else that’s what happens when you do the most touristy thing in a place. Yea, it was so cool. Waterfall, waterfall, waterfall…did you just see that waterfall? Oh, and the village of Undredal. Cutest thing I have ever seen!

Cutest town in Norway, Undredal

Cutest town in Norway, Undredal

People watching is also a favorite past time so we sipped a few beers, stayed warm and came out during the really good bits to take some photos and chat to a young couple from New Jersey who gave us tips on what to do in Iceland as I’ll be there this coming New Years. We were lucky there were a few breaks in the clouds and it didn’t rain the whole time. I must go back though! Sneaky tip – try the porthole in the loo to stay dry while also getting an amazing view.

Waterfall view from the loo

Waterfall view from the loo

Day 5: Flåm

The heart of Flam

The heart of Flam

What a name! Flåm. The final stop on the fjord cruise ends in the small village of Flåm. There’s nothing much there other then another stunning view of more waterfalls as the primary reason so many tourists and cruise ships stop in is to begin their journey on the scenic Flåm Railway.

View from Flam Marina & Apartments

View from Flam Marina & Apartments

Jaime and I stayed the night in town at the Flåm Marina & Apartments. It was very quant and the rooms were clean, with nice balconies overlooking the fjord. The village is so small it’s a short walk to the main bit, with a few restaurants and gift shops. The highlight however was the Ægir BrewPub. The food portions upstairs at Flåmsbrygga are huge and delicious and the beer sampling is what they do best. Set in an old stave church, the wood beam and stone Viking-looking interior and interesting shape made it an ideal place to spend the evening as the rain continued down.

Jaime is a viking!

Jaime is a Viking!

If traveling on the Flåm Railway (Flåmsbana) from Flåm you want a seat on the right hand side facing away from town. This showcases the most dramatic views of the landscape as the train travels across steep terrain. It makes a tourist stop on a viewing platform at Kjosfossen to view the massive waterfall 93m tall. Quite an eerie experience to view the overwhelming falls in the rain, as a woman with long hair in a red dress stood twirling on the edge of the mountain singing to the sound of spiritual music coming from what looked like an old abandoned shed.

Day 6: Geilo

Trekking around Geilo

Strong posing while trekking around Geilo.

When people describe taking the train across Norway from Bergen to Oslo they are not joking when they express how magnificent the journey really is. The stretch from Flåm to Geilo was straight out of something I only ever dreamed. Rivers and rapids, lakes, glaciers, snowcapped mountains, rock formations with a single fire-engine red house standing out in the distance. There’s a huge mountain biking culture here as well and many bring their bikes along to trek across this awesome terrain.

We stopped in Geilo, only to later learn that it’s an upmarket ski resort. In the summer, it’s a great place for hiking. We imagined we’d be a lot more physically active up until this point in the trip but due to the rain we swapped exercise for beers. Luckily for our stay in Geilo the weather was perfect for a 12K hike around the Ustedalsfjorden. It was pretty quiet, bar a few other hikers so it was just us and the massive valley to explore. We packed a picnic, with wine and cheese of course, and set out to do what Norwegians do best – explore the great outdoors.

Hiking through Geilo in style

Hiking through Geilo in style

We were massively disappointed to learn that the two best restaurants in town Hallingstuene and Ekte were fully booked. Even in off-season you must book well in advance. We ended up at Karma Spices of India, run by an Iranian family, and it was quite average.  I’ve never before seen cheeseburgers and fish soup on any other Indian restaurant menu.

Day 7: Oslo

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It’s about 4 hours from Geilo on the train to finish off in Oslo. Oslo has a reputation of being even more expensive, but also lacking in the tourism department. With just a half a day to spare we opted to go the Nobel Peace Center. It’s a great place to spend a free hour and really brought to light some of the applauding humanitarian efforts happening all across the world.

We finished with what could only be a perfect meal. Solsiden is rated one of the top seafood restaurants in the city and overlooks the Oslo Fjord and trendy Aker Brygge waterfront. We divulged in sashimi of scallops, halibut, octopus and salmon before each devouring a delicately prepared fish main course.

Sashimi starter at Solsiden

Sashimi starter at Solsiden

We sadly left Oslo with empty pockets and a bit fatter than when we arrived but with happy memories, great vibes of the local people, and amazing pictures, until our next adventure as traveling buddies presents itself again.

 

What I Learned in Malta

20 Jul

Blue lagoon, Comino Island, MaltaStepping off of the plane at midnight to 75 degree weather was a welcoming change to this dreary London summer. “Ah, it smells like I’m going to get tan!” I claimed with confidence after feeling the heat; taking in that unmistakable holiday feeling you get in the Mediterranean climate.

So here we were in Malta, 3 work mates on a mission for sun, food and an escape from city living. The funny thing is none of us knew anything about Malta. I naturally read the guidebook in advance but somehow still completely underestimated the small island between Sicily and Africa.

That’s the key difference. Yes it’s an island but it’s also an entire country! Naively I assumed the whole thing was walkable and hopping from each point of interest would be a breeze. Oh how wrong I was, but luckily the touristy hop on/hop off bus became both our saving grace and best friend.

Gozo Sightseeing Bus

Gozo Sightseeing Bus

As we sat on the top of the bus in our bikinis soaking up the rays we were immediately wowed by the ancient city of Valetta, stopping off to tour through the “Kings Landing” of the show Game of Thrones lookalike for a wander and to sip a few of our new drink of choice, Aperol Spritz!

The old stone walls, reminiscent of the footprint England left up until 1964 when Malta gained independence was obvious, but countered by the magnificently clear blue bays that appeared around every corner you’d turn. Like stepping back in time,  I questioned the entire time if this is what Sicily really is like. Gelato shops filled the quiet streets but on the flip side English is the second and most commonly spoken language.

Gelateria, Malta

Gelateria, Malta

We stayed in the posh bit though, Saint Julian’s Bay. It was magnificent! The Cavalieri Art Hotel was perfect for our needs; high end and trendy yet not over priced, with a large saltwater pool overlooking the bay with access to hop right into the salty sea, beautiful restaurants on our doorstep and accessible to the nightlife in Paceville, which we quickly learned our first night was a MUCH younger crowd.

Cavalieri Art Hotel

Cavalieri Art Hotel

We grew impatient with the self-termed “Maltese minute” whilst sailing with Supreme Cruises to the famed jewel the Blue Lagoon off of the small neighbouring island of Comino. Beautiful but so overcrowded and over priced, the best move we made was paying a fiver for a ride to Santa Marija Bay, a small secluded beach on the far side of the island which provided tranquillity with local beers, sun chairs and a clear inlet to swim in. Even better, a small tin shack owned by tat-bearing hippies served great homemade sandwiches on Maltese bread to keep us satisfied.

Blue Lagoon, Comino Island

Blue Lagoon, Comino Island

At night after a few Aperol Spritz sundowners (spritz o’clock) we’d be in search for the best meal in town, be it fresh fish in the seaside fishing village of Marsaxlokk, Italian pastas, or the local delicacy of rabbit. Dining at Piccolo Padre was by far our best meal. With a stunning view over St Julian’s Bay, we sat on the balcony of an old stone farmhouse with weathered blue shutters, now termed “Penny’s House” in her desire to live there one day, listening to the water lapping and sharing fresh Gorgonzola and salmon dips before divulging in the famed rabbit. Sophie was served the lung and therefore it was only polite for us to try a bit of the tiny soft and rich mush. It was the best service we had yet.

And then I fell in love with Gozo. A desolate place, dry, simple and quiet. The farthest of the 3 islands, vineyards grow in the dry dirt and cactus border the dusty roads.

It was surreal walking the empty streets in the scorching heat. So quiet the only sound was our flip flops against the pavement, stopping only to try some fresh fruit or pick a cactus flower. The mussels at Ta’ Pennellu in the picturesque seaside town of Marsalforn where we stopped for lunch were the best I’ve ever had.

3 full days just wasn’t nearly enough time. We did so much, yet were never rushed at all and felt totally chilled. Luckily I was travelling with a stellar group of girls for our first time. Sun sisters! Happy to soak up the rays and up for anything, be it a glass of local wine at 2 am (and hopelessly trying a trick in the hotel room to open the bottle with a shoe and key), to taking the long walk home to hear canons go off for the neighbouring fair (fate), or sharing a shisha at night, a nod to the Arabic influence. Because why not, we’re on holidays after all.

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