Archive for July, 2011

July 22, 2011

Beautiful Beginnings In Portugal

by Anna

Johnny and I had big smiles on our faces when we finally arrived to Salema, Portugal on Wednesday after a 4 1/2 hour bus ride to Lagos followed by a 20 minute taxi ride. As we rounded the bend in our taxi to Salema, we were greeted by sparkling turquoise waters, whitewashed houses tucked on the side of a hill and our B&B, A Maré, perched on the edge of a cliff with an amazing view of the beach and tiny village below that consisted of a few restaurants, a couple tiny bars and one mini-market.

Our B&B, A Maré Salema’s main drag
Chillaxin at our B&B It’s always happy hour somewhere in the world!

At its core Salema is a fishing village, and weathered fishing boats with a lot of character sit along the beach and are towed in and out of the water by a small red tractor. Salema has caught on in popularity as a European tourist destination, and now has newer condos built into the hillside and menus translated into English and German at every restaurant, but the town still retains its salty charm, and its beautiful crystal clear waters and colorful rocky cliffs could not be beat. No to mention, every meal we had here was  delicious! We tried to eat all locally caught fish and prawns, and we were not disappointed! We’ve also decided that we’ve become pros at eating the “whole fish,” leaving nothing but bones (we’ve even been eating the cheeks!).

Fishing boat heading out to sea

Aside from eating seafood, lying on the beach and swimming in the chilly Atlantic (Johnny’s first time in this ocean!), we took an awesome hike to a small secluded beach that was absolutely stunning. The sea had carved a cave in the rocks and you could see where other huge chunks of rock had fallen from the cliffs to make a visually impactful backdrop. The best part was that we had the whole walk and beach to ourselves, never passing another soul.

View from our hike
Trail down to the beach Taking in the view

I tried to video the beach, because it was so amazing, but I still don’t think it does it justice (excuse my shaky camera work!).

Today we are BEYOND excited because we are packing up and heading to Lisbon to meet up with Gustavo (aka: Goose) and Sarah. Goose has already been in Portugal for the past week, visiting his family, and Sarah flies in on Saturday morning. We are putting our trip in Goose’s hands for the next nine days, and he’s already been hinting at wine and port tastings, fútbol matches, BBQs, golf, octopus and lots of Super Bock!

Ready for some Super Bock (Goose’s favorite beer)!
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July 21, 2011

Top 3 Tapas

by Anna

My mom always pokes fun at me because whenever I come back from anywhere, the first thing I talk about is what I ate…..and usually something that I ate was “one of the best things I EVER ate!” It’s true. I love food, and luckily Johnny loves it as much as I do…if not more:) With that said, I wanted to be sure to record our top three tapas restaurants that we ate at in Spain, in case any of you happen to be in the same place at some point and want a delicious meal. You never know; it might end up being the best thing you ever ate!
**Eslava and Alaljibe both had more expensive restaurants attached, so we made sure to ask for the tapas only menu. All three of these had the most inventive flavors and prettiest presentations of the places we went to while still being really well-priced.

Traga Tapas, Ronda
Favorite tapas: Grilled asparagus with shredded Manchego cheese and marmalade, Patatas Bravas, Curried chicken skewers

Eslava, Sevilla
Favorite tapas: Smoked salmon on toast (with some delicious secret sauce!), Grilled chili relleno stuffed with white fish, “Solomillo” pork in some delicious sauce with roasted potatoes

Alaljibe, Sevilla
Favorite tapas: Salmon ceviche with ginger, Tuna tataki with grilled vegetables, Curry shrimp with basamati rice and coconut milk
**We also had our favorite Sangria here!

July 21, 2011

Seven Days In The South Of Spain

by Johnny

Sevilla is stereotypical Spain, in a good way.  It’s overflowing with Flamenco, bullfighting, art, history, spontaneous festivals, colorful churches, noisy plazas, tapas bars and sangria.  It’s exactly how I pictured Spain in my head…only 30° hotter.  We’re lucky the apartment we rented for a week had air conditioning, because the city is pretty unbearable from about 3:00pm until 9:00pm this time of year (ah, so this is why I got the low season rate).  Not to be deterred, Anna and I took full advantage of the cooler mornings to see the tourist sites and the evenings to casually wander the city.

Our air conditioned apartment Orange trees line every street and plaza
We stumbled onto many random celebrations Colorful Sevilla

We checked out Sevilla’s most famous attraction, its cathedral, which is the third largest church in Europe and the largest Gothic church anywhere.  It’s got some pretty interesting things going on inside, including Christopher Columbus’ tomb and the golden Retalbo Mayor, but Anna and I thought it was more impressive from the outside, especially at night.  We also liked the cathedral’s courtyard filled with orange trees and its tower with one long, continuous ramp going up so that horses could climb it.

Outside of the cathedral Christopher Columbus’ tomb
Lots of gold in the cathedral View of the bullring from the cathedral’s Giralda tower

As far as Sevilla’s tourist sites go, the Alcázar takes the cake.  It is probably the most impressive building we’ve seen so far on our trip.  It was built in the 10th century while Sevilla was under Muslim control, so the Moorish style architecture and elaborate tilework were unlike anything we had seen in France.  The entire place was a maze of hallways, rooms, patios and gardens, each more elaborately decorated than the next.

A courtyard in the Alcázar
Alcázar ceiling Doorways in the Alcázar
Ancient baths under the Alcázar gardens Alcázar architecture
One of the incredible gardens at the Alcázar

Obligatory tourist attractions aside, Sevilla is a great city just to wander around and lose yourself in.  Its Barrio Santa Cruz, the old Jewish Quarter, is a maze of tiny streets, dubbed “kissing lanes” because they were built so close to each other to maximize shade.  There seem to be hidden plazas around every corner, each lined with orange trees (again to maximize shade, as they keep their green leaves all year long).  And don’t even get Anna started on all the colorful tiles all over the city.  They’re everywhere…park benches, floors, ceilings, doorways and even on the underside of balconies.  As a recent effort to “green up” the city, Sevilla has made itself much more bicycle friendly.  Anna and I took full advantage of Sevici, the city’s community bicycle program where you basically grab a bike at one of over 200 kiosks located throughout Sevilla and drop it off at another.  This let us see some areas of the city we wouldn’t have otherwise, and it saved us from long walks home in the mid-day heat.

Sevilla is probably best seen at night.  It was easy to lose track of time with so many people out and about.  Plazas that looked like ghost towns at 3:00pm were packed at 2:00am with parents eating while their kids played soccer.  Most nights Anna and I would grab a late dinner before sitting on a bench in the shadow of the cathedral listening to Flamenco guitar players for hours on end.  The city even smells like oranges at night…it’s really amazing.  One night we even caught an actual Flamenco show at La Carbonería, which is basically a sangria beer garden.  It was a free show, and most Flamenco enthusiasts will tell you it isn’t the real deal, but I think you’d have a hard time finding a dancer more passionate than ours.  It was serious business.

“Kissing lane” in Barrio Santa Cruz
Colorful plaza Biking across the bridge into Triana
Tiles And more tiles
If this was our last stop, Anna would have filled her suitcase with as many of these as she could
No shortage of tapas in Sevilla Plaza in Triana
The scene in Alameda de Hercules at 1:00am
Cathedral at night Flamenco!

The highlight of our week, and probably the biggest unexpected surprise of our trip so far, was an overnight trip to Ronda, one of Andalucía’s largest white hill towns.   Anna and I knew nothing about Ronda before we went (I think I just googled “day trips from Sevilla” or something), but we were both blown away by the beauty and history of the place.  For starters, the physical setting is unreal.  Ronda’s old town and new town straddle a massive gorge connected by a bridge that will make you say, “How the heck did humans build something like this?”  Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls was inspired by the tiny prison cell in the center of the bridge, where prisoners would be sentenced to death by jumping into the ravine below.  And while Sevilla carries on the tradition of bullfighting today, the sport (or art form, as the Spanish like to call it), was invented in Ronda.  It was an incredible place, and Anna and I both agreed we’d love to go back one day.  Unfortunately I got a little antsy uploading our pictures and instead deleted them all (oops!), but we still got some good ones on Anna’s camera.

Ronda’s Puente Nuevo
View from one of Ronda’s parks Valley below Ronda
Houses built to the edge of the ravine
Our B&B in Ronda Adios Spain…Olá Portugal!
July 14, 2011

Love At First Tapas

by Anna

After an incredible month-and-a-half in France, topped off by a week of music, sea and sunshine in Sete, Johnny and I bid “au revoir” to France and hopped our train to Spain! We were both excited to tackle a new country, and I was especially excited since it was my first time to Spain. After a pick-pocketing run-in that was a little too close for comfort on the metro (ie: Johnny catching a girl’s hand down his pocket, and another guy half unzipping my bag), we arrived – with all of our worldly possessions in tact – in Barcelona at our cool little spot, Solyk Guesthouse, in the Gothic quarter. Any reservations from our subway experience immediately evaporated once we hit the bustling streets around our hostel. After exploring the winding streets, beautiful palm tree-lined squares, some amazing cathedrals and the action-packed Las Ramblas, we headed to a local tapas spot to get our first taste of pinchos, or tapas speared with toothpicks which are then counted at the end of your meal to determine how many you ate and what you owe…AKA: Johnny and I in heaven. We probably spent a good few hours at the tapas bar, loading up our plates with different types of pinchos, sipping red wine and talking with others at the bar. We met a really nice Australian guy from Perth, living in NYC, who was in town speaking at a veterinary conference. Did you know that one can specialize in hard and soft palette mouth surgery on animals? Well, we learned all about it and made a new friend.

Tapas! The first of many pinchos…

The next morning we decided to test Johnny’s Spanish language skills at the famous Boqueria Market. We thought we had seen some amazing markets in France, but this one really topped them all. Aisle after aisle of stands overflowing with ripe fruits and vegetables, glistening piles of shellfish and giant whole fish with jagged teeth positioned artfully in seas of ice, hanging ‘jamon’ dripping fat in plastic cones, all sorts of unidentifiable animal parts, mountains of spices, freshly made pastas, and everything in between were interspersed with small tapas counters featuring the surrounding ingredients. One of the main attractions of the market were the colorful arrays of fruit platters and blended fruit drinks to go. From green, violet, orange and crimson, cups lined the stalls in mounds of crushed ice. We couldn’t resist the mango-coconut and strawberry-coconut chilled juices and the bowls of kiwi, papaya and dragon fruit….a delicious treat that we hadn’t seen since our drive to Hana on our honeymoon.

We spent the rest of the day checking out some of the major sites in Barcelona, like Antonio Gaudi’s fairytale-like Park Guell and unbelievable Sagrada Familia, which was really unlike anything I have ever seen. And what better way to end a great day of sight seeing than with another night of tapas! This time we took our own “tapas tour,” starting with a cool Cerverceria with an awesome beer selection (making Johnny very happy) and ending with double scoops of icecream and an impromptu thunder storm.

Entrance to Park Guell Picnic in the park
What is more impressive? Sagrada Familia or Johnny’s beard? Sagrada Familia
Looking left from our room’s balcony Looking right from our room’s balcony

We made the most of our two days in this gorgeous, lively city, and are looking forward to another week in Sevilla in the Andalusia region of Spain!

The airport didn’t stop us from more tapas!
July 12, 2011

Worldwide

by Johnny

You know that feeling when you’re driving by yourself late at night, listening to KCRW and having your mind blown by music you’ve never heard before?  Well, that’s kinda what the feeling’s like at the Worldwide Festival.  Except the music is going 20 hours a day for five straight days.  And you’re on the beach.  In the south of France.

I really wanted to go to a music festival or two during our trip, and the Worldwide Festival worked out perfectly with our timing and routing.   Even though I only recognized a handful of acts on the bill, we pulled the trigger and bought tickets.  The music is spread across three different venues throughout Sète.  There’s ACD Beach, which basically has DJs playing music on the beach from 10:00am to 7:00pm (think MTV’s The Grind).  From about 7:30pm to 11:00pm the music moves to Theatre de la Mer, an open-air theater built into a cliff that hosts most of the festival’s live acts.  It’s impossible to put into words or capture in pictures what it’s like to watch some great music overlooking the Mediterranean at sunset while the fishing boats come in from their day at sea.  Finally, from midnight to 6:00am, the music heads to St. Christ, a square at the end of a long peninsula surrounded by the sea and beneath the town’s lighthouse.  Anna and I made it to about 2:30am one night, which we thought was pretty good for this old, married couple.  Everyday was a blast.  We’d wake up, pack up some food, head to the beach for a couple hours, shower, cook dinner and then head out to the nighttime venues for as long as we could hang.  And the absence of ‘faux-hippies’ and ‘I’m-hipper-than-you Indian headdresses’ was quite refreshing…just a bunch of really friendly Europeans dancing the night away.

ACD Beach stage St. Christ stage under the lighthouse
I tried my best to capture the magic at Theatre de la Mer
Theater de la Mer from a different point of view James Blake live at Theater de la Mer

Even if there was no music festival going on, we still would have loved visiting Sète.  It’s a fishing village that’s been referred to as the Venice of France because of the canals that run through the old part of town.  One day when Anna and I didn’t want to spend all day at the beach (read: got too sunburned the day before), we explored the town on foot.  Like Avignon, Sète has a Les Halles indoor market selling fresh meat and produce.  Being a fishing town, there was a ton of recently caught fish and shellfish on display.  After loading up on picnic supplies, we trekked up Mont St-Clair, the 600 foot hill that the town was built around, and were rewarded with views of the Langeudoc mountains and the Mediterranean sea as far as the eye could see.  On our way down, we swung by Sète’s Cimetière Marin, a cemetery overlooking the sea where the town’s fishermen and sailors who were lost at sea have been buried.  Cemeteries normally give me the heebie-jeebies, but this one was too impressive not to spend some time checking out.

The view from Mont St-Clair
Cimetière Marin Cimetière Marin
Seafood at Les Halles Fresh seafood for dinner at L’amphore
Felt great to finally take a dip in the sea

Sète also has a proud water jousting tradition dating back to 1666.  What’s water jousting, you ask?  Well, two boats filled with 10 oarsmen each (and an oboist and drummer to play a traditional jousting tune) are rowed towards each other while a jouster waits on a platform at the rear of each boat.  Once the boats get close enough, the jousters try to knock each other into the water.  It’s like Medieval Times meets American Gladiators.  Spectators fill the stands each afternoon to watch the display.  It’s a little hard to explain, so check out the video Anna took:

A blog entry about Sète wouldn’t be complete without mentioning our B&B, Les Joutes Royales.  After our relatively close quarters at the farm, this place felt like a penthouse suite.  The best part was our balcony overlooking Sète’s main canal, Canal Royal.  We’d have breakfast on they balcony every morning and some wine and beer every afternoon, all the time watching the fishing boats going in and out of the harbor.  The B&B also had a communal kitchen, so we could save some bucks by cooking some of our own dinners.  We made a tomato and courgette pasta and a vegetable curry that would have made our farm hosts Russell and Yvonne proud.  Every other room in the B&B was jam-packed with a group of girls from the U.K. who were celebrating one of their bachelorette parties.  They’d wake up around 11:00am for some breakfast, hit the beach all day, come back for a quick dinner, and then head out until the music stopped at 6:00am.  How do these Europeans do it?

Ready for a brew Intense petanque game outside our room
Veggie curry on the balcony Watching the ships roll in, then I watch ’em roll away again
Les Joutes Royales was the little yellow building almost at the end; we had the top left room

On our last night in Sète (and last night in France!) we went to a restaurant called La Ola that was right on the beach and close enough to the festival to hear the music playing.  I said au revoir to France with one last goat cheese salad and Anna had some of the locally caught, grilled dorado.  Then we headed over to the festival in time to catch Brandt Brauer Frick playing at the beach as the sun went down.  A perfect ending to a perfect five days in Sète.

Our last meal in France at La Ola Our table at La Ola
Let’s class this festival up a little bit Au revoir, France.  Merci!
July 6, 2011

Farewell To The Farm

by Johnny

Today is our last day of our first farmstay, and while I’d be lying if I said we enjoyed every second of pulling out weeds and stacking firewood, overall it was a great experience.  Being here for almost three weeks allowed us to really connect with a place and our hosts on a personal level, and it was the first time it felt like we were traveling as opposed to just being on a vacation (which was kinda the reason for this whole trip in the first place).  We learned some new things, made some new friends, got our hands dirty and gave our wallets a much needed breather.  It was experience we’ll remember forever.  Here’s what we’ve been up to for the past week or so…

Courgettes, or zucchinis as you Americans like to call them, have been growing like crazy on the farm, and Yvonne has been finding all sorts of ways to feed us with them.  Besides steaming them with some other veggies and some S&P (still delicious), she’s put some in Russell’s famous curry, made some courgette and brie cheese soup, threw them in a quiche, and stuffed them with some ground beef, onions and corn.  She’s even sending us off with a couple in our bags for our next stop!

Bountiful harvest Yvonne stuffing a giant courgette
Courgette quiche Courgette and brie soup (my lunch three days straight)

Ever heard of Andorra?  I always thought it was a town in Spain, but it’s actually its own principality on the border of Spain and France.  It has duty-free status, so every once in a while Russell makes the trek there to stock up on booze and cigarettes.  He took us on one such trip, and even though we felt a little bit like drug mules, the scenic drive more than made up for it.  For two hours we drove through the Pyrenees, stopping to stretch our legs at small ski resort towns like Ax-les-Thermes.  The route is actually one of the stages in the Tour de France.  We were happy to have Russell navigating the windy mountain roads so we could gaze out the windows at the view.

Andorra’s mountain ranges Ax-les-Thermes
Checking out the view

One day last week it was over 30°C (trust me, that’s hot), so we went over to Russell’s friends house to clean his pool and go for a swim.  Being that we’re on a farm, I was expecting to pull back the pool cover to find sewage water and a dead animal or two, but the pool was actually stunning.  Anna hosed down and changed the filters while I went with Russell to check the attic for dead rats (thank goodness their weren’t any).  We had a great swim, which also counted as my weekly shower.

Not a bad spot for a dip Did somebody order a pool boy?

On our last free day we wandered up to Rennes-le-Chateau, a hilltop village whose church is shrouded in Da Vinci Code-esque mystery.  The once sleepy little town now gets tens of thousands conspiracy theorists visiting it each year.  To make matters more interesting, the town offers a great view of the mountain of Bugarach, which apparently has aliens living beneath it waiting to take people to the promised land in December 2012.  Funky place, this region of France.  Anna and I didn’t find the Holy Grail, and we didn’t score any tickets to the end-of-the-world party, but we did take in Rennes-le-Chateau’s gorgeous views and the peaceful beauty of its mysterious, tiny church.

Rennes-le-Chateau Bugarach…it’s the end of the world as we know it
The calming church at Rennes-le-Chateau

After our looong walk down from Rennes-le-Chateau we decided to try and find Domaine St. Jacques, a vineyard we stare in awe at everyday from our farm.  We navigated a couple side streets, crossed the railroad tracks and finally found some signs that pointed us in the right direction.  After walking for what seemed like hours (wait, I thought kilometers were less than miles?), we made it to the vineyard.  I must say, going to taste wine in France is just the best.  You basically show up uninvited to a chateau or vineyard, which is usually the winemaker’s house, and taste as much wine as you’d like with the premise that you may buy a bottle or two.  The tasting at Domaine St. Jacques was no different.  We made it to the top of the long, tree-lined driveway and admired the garden until out came Monsieur Torregrosa in his slippers.  It seriously looked liked we just interrupted his post-lunch nap.  We tried communicating what we were doing at his place until I finally just said the word, “Vin!”  He nodded and let us into his tiny tasting room.  Monsieur Torregrosa is from Spain but has been in France for 20+ years, so whatever Anna couldn’t communicate in French I could try to say in Spanish.  He filled us up full glasses on Chardonnay and Blanquette de Limoux, the region’s sparkling wine, which hit the spot after our long walk.  After a great conversation (him talking and us nodding our understanding of every tenth word) he sent us off with a bottle of each for a total of €10.  That’s what I call a wine tasting experience.

Anna with our bounty View of Domaine St. Jacques from our farm

Our 4th of July started out just like any other…filling up water tanks from the Aude River and chopping down wild bamboo.  But seriously, Russell and Yvonne did their best to humor us on Anna’s favorite holiday.  We got a surprise American flag in our sandwiches for lunch and indulged in some good ol’ BBQ chicken and potato salad for dinner (and polished off our new bottle of Chardonnay).

USA! USA! USA!

So our first farmstay has come to an end and it’s off to Sète tomorrow for the Worldwide Festival.  One of the best things about being here for almost three weeks is that it allowed us to recharge our batteries and get re-energized about the next leg of our travels.  It seriously feels like we’re starting a brand new trip tomorrow, and we’re pumped to finally be heading to the sea!  However, we’ll miss this beautiful farm and our hosts, though we come away with great memories of this experience.  Thanks Yvonne and Russell (and Whiskey, Remi, Pernod and Ouzo)!