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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!



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

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.

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.

For the Love of France

12 Jun

Within my first 6 months living back in London I have ventured over to France 4 times…it really must be love!

From the City of Lights in Paris to craft beer drinking Lille, to the castles of Loire and finally to the capital of gastronomy Lyon, I’m making a serious dent in becoming a Francophile. Who would have thought it?

My recent trip to the Loire Valley was special. My mom made her way over from New Jersey for our first mother/daughter European adventure. What better way to spend the time then to hop on the Eurostar then travel through bright yellow canola fields into the city of Tours at the heart of the Loire Valley.

JoAnn Rose in St. Pancreas International

JoAnn Rose in St. Pancreas International

We trailed the internet in search of the perfect wine tour but it just didn’t appear to exist. In the end we booked with Loire Valley Tours, where we visited some of the famed castles in the valley and tried a few wines. We were joined by two 19-year-old American’s who were studying abroad, and I couldn’t help but smirk at their naivety, something that I swore I didn’t have when I was in their shoes back in my university days abroad in 2003. Even funnier was that the girls were studying French in Toulouse. Our driver Simon kindly pointed out that learning French in the south would be like learning english in Liverpool, the accent is just simply that bad.

Simon of Loire Valley Tours

Simon of Loire Valley Tours

Simon rudely wouldn’t assist us in making a dinner reservation, something that I would have thought is going above and beyond. He wanted to prove a point though, so as I hung up after nervously calling one of the best local restaurants in Tours to book us into dinner, he said, “See, do you now have a reservation?” And after I bashfully responded “Yes”, he said, “I told you so, this is 2016 after all and everyone in France speaks english.”

My favourite castle was Chenonceau, set over River Cher with immaculate gardens and a fascinating story as it was built by different women over the centuries.  I also enjoyed the day in the picturesque town of Amboise, visiting Leonardo de Vinci’s grave and home where he died, and the interesting lunch of pork belly at what one would assume was a tourist trap yet was strangely filled with locals at cave restaurant La Cave aux Fouées.

Our wine tasting at Caves Duhard was like nothing I had ever experienced before. No wine was made there, it simply was storage, but then again that’s what caves in France are perfect for. In fact, one of the oldest bottles they still had was from 1874. As we carefully walked along the dirt floor into the darkness of the depth of the cave, we passed thick green bottles stacked upon bottles, labelless, casually divided by a concrete wall with the name and year scribbled on a piece of wood. As I wiped dust off of a 1983 Vouvray, the year I was born, I contemplated buying it. Prices were very reasonable after all but following the brief tasting we had paired with some amazing local cheese I thought better of it and bought a cheap and cheerful Moutlouis to drink on a warm summers day. Note: I’ve already drank it and it was more delicious the second time around.

It appeared our answer to everything that weekend was “Bonjour”. More wine? Bonjour. Have a good evening. Bonjour. Where are you from? Bonjour. So as we made our way from Michelin-starred restaurants to boutique wine bars and said our bonjours, we took our last stop in Paris before travelling back to London for one more wine, escargot and beef tartare. Oh how French.

The following weekend I was on a flight with my friend Jake back over to France again, but this time to where it is oddly referred to as the stomach of France, Lyon! Oh, how I loved Lyon!

Shamefully I hadn’t done my research well enough in advance, and we arrived late Saturday afternoon on a bank holiday weekend to fly back again on Monday. I had planned it perfectly in my head, only to learn that there are no wine tours on Sunday and we wouldn’t arrive early enough on Saturday! So here I was, traveling to the famed northern Rhone Valley and there wasn’t an opportunity to taste the wine at a vineyard?! So not cool. But then again, if you don’t ask you don’t get and luckily I came across Vincent of Lyon Wine Tours, a young wine tour operator who kindly picked us up at Lyon airport Saturday afternoon and took us through elegant Cote-Rotie to try some perfect Syrah and Viognier. Oh and unlike Simon, he offered to make our dinner reservation. My only regret now was flying with carry on only as we couldn’t bring anything back!

Cot Rotie Condrieu

Cote Rotie Condrieu

But being in France’s foodie capital meant that the rest of the trip was all about eating, of course. From traditional blood sausage, the new superfood apparently, and the best potatoes dauphinoise I’ve ever had at traditional Lyonnaise eatery Chez Mounier. The real star of town however is Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, a famed gastronomic institution where locals come to gather not only to shop from each little storefront of over 48 merchants for cheese, foie gras, pralines, charcuterie and others but also to make their way from each small restaurant to the next, trying a new dish as each had its own speciality.

We desperately wanted oysters but found ourselves sat at the counter of Les Garcons Bouchers (The Butcher), ordered some of the finest steak and potatoes for breakfast, and had a friendly chat with our French neighbours who poured us bounty of their own wine as we must try it they demanded. Oysters would come next for lunch at L’epicerie before dining at Lyon’s famed chef Paul Bocuse’s brassiere, Le Sud.

Oysters at L’epicerie, Lyon

Oysters at L’epicerie, Lyon

The city itself is picturesque, with an Old Town, cobblestone streets and all, and a huge cathedral, Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière,  at the top of the hill which makes for a great afternoon hike in between all the wine and food tasting. There’s also plenty of shopping and nightlife, but who needs that in a culinary haven such as Lyon.

A Weekend Escape to Riga, Latvia

17 Mar

Gentle snowflakes touched my brow as I stood proudly next to a Siberian husky. The tranquillity of the white landscape, deep in the Latvian countryside after dog sledding amongst the pines, was peaceful. Or at least I imagined it would be. My recent purchase of a leopard-print ear band matched my gold puffy jacket and tan furry snow boots perfectly. I already had my Instagram image perfected in my head.

After boarding our Ryanair flight at Stansted to Riga, Lizzie and I chatted over a wine and giggled at the fact that we had no idea what to expect at touchdown. My Lonely Planet download failed and out of character I had done no planning. Weather, food, currency, language, tourist sites…I would have to go circa 2003 backpacker days and just wing it as after all, there was no snow on the ground so dog sledding would have to be postponed until next time. The above was just a fantasy yet my outfit remained the same.

Lisa Vecchio, Old Town, Riga

Lisa Vecchio, Old Town, Riga

It turns out Riga was pretty cool despite the untraditionally warm weather. In fact, it’s considered one of the most “hipster” cities in all of Europe. Here are some tips on how to make the most of your time if you a have quick escape to Riga.


Latvians are passionate people, so this also explains their love of smoked meats, sauerkraut and pickled everything.

  • Ala: Every person I spoke to elated both the authenticity and fun factor of this traditional folk house. If frequenting over the weekend, go early to snag a bar seat or even better make a reservation to sit at one of their large communal tables. The local beer selection is vast (26 taps!) to compliment the over-sized portions of conventional Latvian cuisine with a modest price tag to match. Stay late as it transforms from eatery to party spot. In addition, the service was fantastic as our bartender and waiter both made sure we had an opportunity to sample all the local delicacies and brews on tap – the garlic bread is extraordinarily different, delicious and a must try.
Platter and craft beer at Ala, Old Town, Riga

Platter and craft beer at Ala, Old Town, Riga

  • Burger Story: I would argue that this is the best burger I’ve had in my life. Hipster with a clubby vibe and unsuspecting, this late night spot is the most Western yet delicious meal I ate my whole time in Latvia.
  • Šefpavārs Vilhelms (pancake house): Latvians love a self-service buffet and this small pancake eatery is as authentic as it comes. While there were also labels in English to describe every pancake available under the sun, from banana to cottage cheese fillings, I felt the most anticipated option of potato pancake was bland. Then again, I didn’t fully take advantage of the variety of toppings including candied fruit and sour cream, all of which the locals appeared to drown theirs with. Better yet, my entire plate was a mere two Euro.
  • Central Market: In what was once a WWII Zeppelin hanger and considered one of the worlds most modern markets during the 1930’s, this colorful hub where all of the grannies come to gossip is sensation overload. It contains everything you would need, from fruit and veg carts to aged meats to a fishery as pungent as a bad joke. Handicrafts and knick-knacks line the market’s outer walls offering tourists a cheaper alternative to the souvenir shops in Old Town.


Riga was described to me as independent, and the embodiment of culture. If you’re good at what you do and good at getting by, you live in Riga. While central Riga does have its fair share of chain stores, Latvia is the type of country where you can certainly score something interesting when supporting independent retailers.

  • Riga Free Walking Tour: Everyday at noon outside of St. Peter’s Church you’ll be greeted by a bright yellow suitcase to signify you are on the Riga Free Walking tour. Tours vary from exploring Old Town or leaving the touristy cobblestone streets to get out of your comfort zone and into greater Riga to see the Russian and German influence alongside the Art Nouveau architecture. Agita was a wonderful host and I would recommend the tours to anyone – please tip as you feel appropriate.
Riga Free Tour; yellow suitcase

Riga Free Tour; yellow suitcase

  • Kalnciema Kvartāls (craft market): Only held once a month, we took the scenic route and walked the 40 minutes out of the city centre to get here. A cab would have been more appropriate to avoid the busy walk amongst the paved highway extension. This market is as authentic as they come. Predominately tourist free, we bundled our scarves up tighter as snowflakes landed across our thick winter coats while we witnessed native sellers showcasing dried meats, liquor and cheese to winter outerwear and Latvian couture. Everyone gladly spoke english once we responded wide-eyed to their enthusiastic explanation of goods on display.
Vendor at Kalnciema Kvartāls (craft market, Riga)

Vendor at Kalnciema Kvartāls (craft market, Riga)


As a top eastern European stag-do (bachelor) destination, Old Town Riga has a plethora of late night spots and hostel-hosted pub crawls. Expect Riga Black Balsam, the traditional Latvian herbal liquor mixed with vodka (45% ABV) to play a big part of your night. Also anticipate beautiful Latvian craft beer.

  • Naughty Squirrel Hostel: We checked into our private room with en-suite and were immediately handed two shots of Balsam. “Tradition,” we were told. So when our pub crawl host introduced himself as Voldemarse, or Volde for short, I knew then that we were going to have a great night. He actually commented that he doesn’t mind that his name is so closely affiliated to the Harry Potter villain Lord Voldemort as at least guests remember his name. 5 pubs later and we were sharing a pint and burger with Volde at the hostel bar.
  • Aussie Pub Riga: Conveniently situated next to Old Town Hostel, with over 14 Latvian beers on tap served from an old VW van, this small Aussie-themed bar is one of the top spots for beer tasting. In fact,  you can sample them all for only 10 Euro. The upstairs is small but cosy and a great place to chill as you can expect the pub crawl to use the ground floor bar as the standard first stop. Don’t let that turn you off from watching biathlon though, the Olympic sport which combines cross country skiing and rifle shooting.
  • Tims Mints: This local hangout in the heart of Old Town is a hipster haven for locals, craft beer and cocktails. They even have board games and table football. This is the type of place you could quietly chill in the afternoon with some friends or dance the night away as it becomes a popular meeting point in the centre of it all.

So there you have it! Medieval Old Town meets post-communism hipsters. Riga certainly is an easy place to enjoy a weekend away.

The Freedom Monument, Riga, Latvia

The Freedom Monument, Riga, Latvia

The Gambrinus’ Stein (Lille, France)

12 Jan

We find ourselves in the small city of Lille in the French Flanders, far enough north to neighbor the Belgian border and thick with Flemish influence; food and architecture included.

Nicole Vecchio Bryce and street art; Rue de la Monnaie, Lille, France

Nicole Vecchio Bryce and street art; Rue de la Monnaie, Lille, France

“What do you mean you’re going to drink beer and not wine,” my mother questioned. “I thought you were going to France?”

Within the proximity of Lille (pronounced lee-eel) there is a growing trend of microbreweries and beer fooding i.e. beer pairing is a very real thing. We might as well be in Belgium. But we are not. My sister and I dash through customs at London’s St. Pancreas International and zip through the Chunnel into northern France. Only a mere hour and a half later we are on Lille’s doorstep. It’s noticeably colder than London and we immediately complain.

Rue de la Monnaie, Lille, France

Rue de la Monnaie, Lille, France

Luckily the city is quite small and manageable for anyone easy on their feet. Within 10 minutes walk we arrive at our hotel in Vieux Lille (Old Lille). This is where things start to appear picturesque and around every corner I squeal “OMG, but isn’t it just so cute?!” My sister Nicole only then grasps that we are in a foreign country and English isn’t the first language. I greet the receptionist with a confident yet mispronounced bonjure and after entering the smallest elevator on earth we land in our immaculate room. Oh Europe I’ve missed you!


We only had a few hours to kill before our grand beer adventure but managed to, what we had initially assumed, see it all. In Vieux Lille we mastered the narrow cobblestone streets and took random turns trying to get lost but actually found our way amongst the cute local shops, craft beer sellers and row upon row of exquisite restaurants. We rode bikes through the windy garden paths of Jardin Vauban, sipped Belgian beers alfresco in La Grand Palais square, and snacked on local specialities like beef tartare, Welsh rarebit and waffles with Nutella. Yum!

At 4 pm we stood in front of the tourist office in anticipation to meet our tour, the beer tasting treasure hunt The Gambrinus’ Stein, organized through the craft beer tasting tourism group L’Echappee Biere. Young Aurelie and her companion Olivier greeted us and whisked us away to our first stop, the unassuming Theatre Cafe, to explain how the game would work. The bad news, Nik and I were the only people on the tour so we weren’t going to make friends as we had hoped. The good news, we couldn’t lose as we had no competitors!

The Gambrinus' Stein, Beer Treasure Hunt

The Gambrinus’ Stein, Beer Treasure Hunt

We were handed a booklet that explained it all. 4 bars, 3 hours and a series of clues to get us from one to the next. The clues weren’t googlable and were intended to have us experience the city by observing the elements so easily overlooked when just passing by. This is what made it both interesting, and yet so damn hard! We snorted with confidence that 3 hours would be a breeze, yet 3 hours and 15 minutes later I was texting Aurelie that we couldn’t locate the final bar.

In addition to the clues such as “once on the square that makes you cry when you cook, keep going straight. If you see a beer shop you are following the correct path,” there were also hints, historical notes and riddles. We would receive extra credit for social sharing photos of key points of interest (and smart marketing on their behalf), and once we made it to the bar would hand over our ticket to the barman who was already expecting us and complete a questionnaire on the given beer color, country of origin, ABV and style. Clever little game don’t you think?

La Grand Palais, Lille, France

La Grand Palais, Lille, France

Into early evening it grew dark and the game intensified as we peered at etchings in the architecture, storefront names and church nuances. But it was fun! At the final bar Olivier met us to go through our answers and rewarded us points, as if we had been competing against others. It was cute and humble and as we sat and chatted about where we should go eat charcuterie and sample some French wines (heaven forbid) I fell even more in love with this small little company of friends who invented a game to educate tourists on not just their city but the world of beer that is so prevalent in it. Their website states, “there are more than 40 breweries in the Nord Pas de Calais, and approximatively 150 in Belgium.”

Olivier handed over our “winning” prize of a large quadruple Trappist. Aurelie shortly followed with a second bottle, saying there was one for each of us. When we tried to resist that it was all just too much, she replied “for my bad English.” Her English was great by the way, and we even appreciated that our booklet was in English as well.

Grand Place, Vieux Lille

Grand Place, Vieux Lille

For 25 euro what an amazing journey. We were educated, awarded beer, and taken to some amazing, unique and colorful bars that we would have so easily overlooked if not had been recommended by locals.  I won’t spoil it for you, but I would definitely recommend you give it a go next time in Lille although I’m still unsure if Gambrinus ever found his stein!

We ended the evening with the most exquisite steak with bearnaise, frittes and a cheese and charcuterie board at La Part de Anges followed by a few glasses of burgundy at neighboring wine bar Monsieur Jacques with a big smile and a day well accomplished.

Steak and Frites at La Part des Anges, Lille

Steak and Frites at La Part des Anges, Lille

Game On Adelaide: A Weekend of Food and Wine

23 Dec

Adelaide’s pretty rad – and there’s more to it than the mocking nickname of ‘Rad-elaide’. Ever since I first visited in 2011 I’ve stood behind its defense, but even more so now that I’ve learnt on my most recent visit that is has made a conscious effort to play cultural hard ball.

This trip no doubt contained another visit to the Barossa Valley disguised behind a work-related conference held at the Adelaide Convention Center. With the Intercontinental, albeit a bit dated, in a prime location overlooking the Adelaide Oval and the beautiful running tracks along the River Torrens, I was already set up to achieve great sights.


River Torrens

Upon arriving I gave my friend a tour of the small city.  We started along North Terrace beside University of Adelaide’s beautiful 19th century sandstone buildings, a contrast against the neighboring modern architecture of its newer lecture halls.

Looping around at Rundle Park took us onto Rundle Street, home to boutiques, cafes, pubs and assortment of restaurants. For a sunny Friday afternoon we stopped off in the Belgian Beer Café and historic pub the Austral for a few pints to start the holiday off.

Lisa Rundle Street

Rundle Street

Rundle Street turns into Rundle Mall where you can find most of your common name brand stores like Meyer, Sports Girl, JB Hi-Fi and the likes. Most famously on the corner of Rundle Mall and Hindley Street sits Australia’s oldest family owned chocolate maker, Haigh’s Chocolates.

My perception of Adelaide was turned upside down when I discovered Peel Street later that evening. Here sits the latest note-worthy restaurant in the city with the same name, Peel Street, and it’s a must stop off (restaurant bookings required). The closest thing Adelaide has in comparison to big sister Melbourne, this small laneway has a splattering of hip bars and underground cocktail lounges to make any local feel privileged thanks to the new small venue license recently instated to help entrepreneurs bring a new vibe to the CBD.

Highlights include Clever Little Tailor, a tiny bar offering a variety of top notch spirits and hand crafted beers set against the original exposed brick and structure. Next door, dine at Bread and Bone Wood Grill for a quick and fancy burger or dog. They really are all the rage but we went a bit rogue by ordering the fish and pork belly, both also to be admired. The waiter kindly offered us entry into the cocktail lounge downstairs, Maybe Mae, where I felt as if I entered some secret world found only in the 1920s, green leather booths, plush carpet and drinks served in crystal. One more stop across the street at Mexican inspired Chihuahua Bar for a wine and a lovely chat with the want to be rock star spun bartender before calling it a night as we had a full day of wine touring ahead of us.

Since I’ve made my rounds in the world-renowned Barossa Valley previously, this time the goal was to visit boutique wineries in a small group to uncover the greatest Shiraz presented to me. Cellar Door Wine Tours asked in advance where we wanted to visit and hand crafted the itinerary amongst all the guests’ top picks.

  1. Murray Street Vineyards was the perfect first stop, as we tasted while sitting around a square table so that all 10 guests had the opportunity to get to know each other. It was refreshing to be greeted by a young host, as Ryan was enthusiastic and knowledgeable, specifically as he demonstrated double aeration. I wanted to walk away with the Gomersal Estate 2010 Shiraz but was nervous to purchase any wine too early in the day– my greatest regret for sure.
  2. Maggie Beer is a gourmet food brand well known by dinner party hosts and the like. The beautiful shop sits on top of an aqua green lake making it a fantastic picnic spot. The best part about the small shop is there is something to taste in nearly every nook and cranny – from fig paste to pate to cider and caramel topping. I spent my time devouring enough homemade bread dipped in olive oil and damper to hold me over until lunch. I also took note of the cooking school that could be a good excuse to come back.
  3. Penfolds was my biggest disappointment of the day. While this isn’t boutique in anyone’s mind, it was a special request from another guest. Honestly, what they offer on tasting is the same as what you can buy in the liquor store and it was only the Tawny I was tempted to buy until I found out that too is distributed in my local bottle shop.
  4. Chateau Yaldara and Café Y is where we stopped for both a tasting and lunch. I wasn’t too impressed with their wines except their sparkling Shiraz and while you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, I definitely would recommend they undergo a branding exercise for their labeling. Luckily the family-owned cafe made up for it with lunch that was described to us by the son in the most intimate detail and while I’m not much of a pasta lover I couldn’t resist the duck ravioli.
  5. Rockford Wines interestingly do their tastings in an old horse stable making it a unique atmosphere for the much anticipated tasting. This winery was our tradeoff for Grant Burge (the one we asked to visit) being too busy. I found the pourer entertaining as he reminded us of Murray from Flight of the Concords so I walked away with a bottle of their Tawny as a Christmas present for my hosts.
  6. Turkey Flat is one of the oldest boutique vineyards in the region. I was sold on a bottle of the now-sold-out 2012 Cabernet as the wine maker was both very chatty and informative, reminding us that 2010 and 2012 were the good years for grapes after the drought. I also couldn’t resist buying the cheeky fortified NV Pedro Ximenez too.

The biggest surprise from the day was the amount of cabernet sauvignon coming out of the Barossa Valley. I truly didn’t expect it and while I didn’t find a long lasting lover in Shiraz to take home, it did make me have a deep think about how much my taste buds have changed as of late.

Back in Adelaide central, one more spot not to miss is the Gouger Street restaurants and the Adelaide Central Market. My absolute, hands down, no questions asked top notch visit was to Cork Wine Café who specialize in organic and biodynamic wines from all over the world. I melted over the La Distesa 2013 ‘Terra Silvate’ Verdicchio and Architects of Wine 2013 Chardonnay. As they do tasting flights, with quite generous pours mind you, it was easy to fall into place here for a few hours.

With so many restaurants to choose from on Gouger Street, primarily deriving from Asian influence, it was hard to choose. Thankfully the staff from Cork Wine recommended the two best places (and most sought after as we couldn’t get a table until 9 pm so book ahead) on the strip including Little NNQ and Concubine.

For a quick weekend of social activities before putting on my work hat we sure managed to cover a lot of ground, including Jamie Oliver’s latest wave to hit Adelaide Jamie’s Italian. But Adelaide, you’re still missing one key element before you can truly reach your cultural trophy and that is – what’s open for breakfast?

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