Gaudí’s city

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May 312009
 
Gaudí's Sagrada Família

Gaudí's Sagrada Família

We arrived in Barcelona a day after (fortunately or unfortunately?) the big parade that followed Barcelona FC’s victory in the Champions League Final.

Football aside, we’re in Spain!  Tapas,  sangria, paella and… hot chocolate ?  Not ’til 10pm though, if you can get there without starving!

We had excellent tapas at Nou Candanchu – pa amb tomaquet (a Catalan specialty – bread topped with crushed tomato and olive oil), grilled mushrooms, fried whitebait, garlic prawns, croquettes and fried potatoes with hot sauce.

Pa amb tomaquet

Pa amb tomaquet

Paella marinara, washed down with sangría

Paella marinara, washed down with sangría

This hot chocolate is like molten chocolate with churros to dip.

This hot chocolate is like molten chocolate with churros to dip.

Of course no visit to Barcelona would be complete without some  Gaudí.  In fact, you probably can’t avoid it unless you walk around with your eyes closed.  The Sagrada Família church is one place we expected to see scaffolding!  It is a massive construction project that began in 1882 and due for completion (yeah, right) in 2026.  Our admission fees went towards the €18m required to fund the work (that’s just 2009’s budget!)

View of Barcelona from Sagrada Família

View of Barcelona from Sagrada Família

So apart from being the most intricate, extravagent, over-the-top, ridiculous church you’ve ever seen, it is quite amazing to see the construction process in action from the floor up to the spires (we caught the lift up and walked down one of them).

Sagrada Família

Sagrada Família

Parc Güell is also home to more of Gaudí’s work.

Parc Güell, Barcelona

Parc Güell, Barcelona

Parc Güell, Barcelona

Parc Güell, Barcelona

May 282009
 
La Boheme

La Boheme

Where to begin?

Perhaps with our first 3 course meal.  We ate lunch at La Boheme, and we were so full for the rest of the day that we had a very light dinner!

Julian had the Menu Provencal and I had the Menu Vegetarian.  My entree was a huge salad, with olives, zucchini, semi-dried tomatoes and marinated mozzarella.  I’m not normally a big fan of mozzarella (a bit too bland for my liking) but marinated like this it was lovely.  My only complaint with this salad was the dressing – a bit too lemony for my liking.

My first French salad

My first French salad

Julian’s entree was an Assortment de charcuteries de Provence – basically an assortment of Provencal meats, including a very tasty chorizo like sausage.

Mini ravioli

Mini ravioli

For my main, I actually ordered the Tian de legumes de salson a la creme de basilic.  For some reason I ended up with Ravioles croquandres sar sa compotive de tomates fraiches, which was like miniture ravioli, filled with some kind of cheese and maybe basil(?) in a tomato sauce.  Despite the mix-up it was still incredibly tasty.

Julian's tagine

Julian's tagine

Meat-loving Julian had the Tajine de taureau aux fruits socs – despite the fact we are going to Morroco in a week!  We saw quite a few African inspired dishes on Provencal menus, so obviously the cultural influence has worked in both directions.  FYI, taureau is bull, a regional speciality.

The creme de la creme!

The creme de la creme!

Finally, dessert.  I had the dessert du jour (dessert of the day) which was creme caramel.  It was divine – the perfect combination of sweet caramel sauce and smooth custard.  Mum, you would have loved it!  Julian had the Sabayon aux fruits de salsons, which he tells me was quite tasty, but he probably wouldn’t order it again.

I won’t bore you with details of our other meals, but I thought you might enjoy this snapshot of Provencal food – the reputation for robust, simple, flavourful food is well deserved.

At the markets

At the markets

2 days in Provence

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May 282009
 

Sadly not a year in Provence, like Peter Mayle!

We spent 3 nights in Arles and did a day trip to Avignon.

Typical provencal street

Typical provencal street

Arles is small (25,000) but picturesque.  It has some fantastic Roman ruins, is known for its bullfights (although the season hasn’t started yet) and it’s where Van Gogh painted some of his best pieces, including one of my personal favourites, Starry Night over the Rhone.

Not quite Van Gogh...

Not quite Van Gogh...

We had to go to the farmer’s markets on Wednesday morning, which are apparently some of the biggest in the region.  Although the produce looked excellent, they weren’t the best markets we’ve seen – they would be better if we were locals or were able to cook whilst here.

Tomatoes at the farmer's market

Tomatoes at the farmer's market

Avignon was a small and unimportant town until the French Pope moved the papal seat here.  For nearly 30 years there were 2 separate Popes – on at the Vatican and one in Avignon.  For nearly a century after the papacy was restored to Rome, Avignonians spoke Italian.

St Benezet Bridge, Avignon

St Benezet Bridge, Avignon

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May 262009
 

It was always going to be a big day of travel:  Italy to France, Riomaggiore to Arles, 600km, five trains, 11 hours.

Then the French decided to call a rail strike.  Chaos erupts.  Trains are cancelled.  Tourists are stranded.  Fed up Italian train officials on the border station of Ventimiglia wish they shared their border with a different, less prone to industrial action country (three times in the last 10 months we heard).

Make that now an epic 15 hours of travel.

We arrived in Arles at 10:30pm, exhausted but jubilent that we made it to Arles at all (we ignored the advice of the rail official in Nice who told us to stay the night).  Fortunately, the reception at Hotel Regence waited until we arrived to check-in.  And people say the French are rude!

This train will be taking no passengers

This train will be taking no passengers

At the beach

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May 252009
 
Riomaggiore harbour

Riomaggiore harbour

The Cinque Terre (five terraces) are part of the Italian Riviera and are five villages by the sea, each only a short distance from the next, connected by train and a walking track.  The whole area is a National Park so it is almost impossible for there to be any new development, leaving the villages as they were (fishing, wine and other produce) before tourism.

We managed to time our visit with some major (Lance Armstrong was there) bike event in the area, so our first night in Riomaggiore was spent in a overpriced dorm with no security and a single bathroom for eight.

The Italian definition of beach, at least in this area, is not quite the same as ours.  Here the Europeans sunbathe on the concrete boat ramps or the rocks.  Admittedly, the water is a very inviting clear blue and we had our first swim of the trip!

Vernazza beach

Vernazza beach

On our last day, we caught the train to Vernazza then hiked back through Corniglia and Manarola to Riomaggiore.  Although we didn’t leave until 4pm, the sun was still very hot and the terrain, especially between Vernazza and Corniglia, was quite  steep.  The coastal views from the cliff-side track were well worth it and occasionally the track would travel through a cool olive grove or vineyard.

Views from the Vernazza-Corniglia track

Views from the Vernazza-Corniglia track

That’s all from Italy this trip.  We’ll miss the food and the friendly folk, but not the dirty trains or the table tax…

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May 222009
 
Prosciutto at Antica Salumeri

Prosciutto at Antica Salumeri

I’d like a hundred grams of prosciutto, please!

Parma is the capital of food.  Parmesan cheese, Parma ham (prosciutto) and home to the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority).  Close by is Modena, home to thick, sweet balsamic vinegar.

Aside from welcoming us, our host introduced us to an excellent place for dinner, Mosaiko Ristorante.  How appropriate that the first thing we should eat was parmesan butter on crusty bread.

Our mains were:

  • Tagliata di vitello alle nocciole con patate individia e porto (Veal with nuts, potatoes and port)
  • Branzino in crosta di pane risotto croccante alle zucchine e basilico (Bass in pastry crust with risotto balls, zuccini and basil sauce)

So delicious and accompanied by a glass of red Sicilian wine.  Then followed by coffee semifreddo and chocolate soufflé.

The veal

The veal

We’ve also visited a couple of local ‘enogastronmias’ (Casa del formaggio and Antica Salumeri) for local cheese and cured meats.  At Antica, Luigi hand-turned the slicer that carved slices of prosciutto so fine they are almost transparent.  We watched in awe and in hope that the larger than life butcher would finish slicing without having a coronary.

Pancetta, parmesan and prosciutto

Pancetta, parmesan and prosciutto

So what to do with this parmesan, prosciutto and pancetta?  Well we found this thing in our apartment called a kitchen, and we set about to cook the best simple pasta around: onions, garlic, butter, white wine, pancetta, tomato, broccoli, sage, topped with parmesan and served with homemade garlic bread.  Yum!

Dinner is served

Dinner is served

Parma is quite a nice city.  It has a sizeable university population and some great parks, churches and the Torrente Parma running through it.

Cattedrale, Chiesa e Monastero di San Giovanni Evangelista and Battistero

Cattedrale, Chiesa e Monastero di San Giovanni Evangelista and Battistero

May 202009
 
Typical Venice

Typical Venice

Venice is a city living on borrowed time.  Its buildings are in various states of repair, many badly in need of a paint job or replastering.  Its streets are narrow and often you’ll be confounded by a dead end.  It is slowly but surely sinking.  And I absolutely loved it!  Something about Venice just spoke to me.  If you avoid the most crowded streets and places until later in the evening, it is really quite quiet.

We were blessed to find a fantastic b&b close to the train station but in the Santa Croce district.  Al Gallion B&B was wonderful – Daniela is the owner and speaks excellent English and was amazingly helpful.   Breakfast included home made apple cake and jams.   A bargain at only €90 a night!

Grand Canal

Grand Canal

Daniela leant us “The Secret Venice of Corto Maltese,” a guidebook featuring a series of food-oriented walking itineries (how appropriate!).  Our first morning in Venice we ventured off on her recommended Orient Door itinerary.  It was a wonderful, relatively quiet way to see the real Venice.

Of course, we couldn’t leave Venice without a gondola ride, however overpriced!  Julian played the gondalier and he offered us a €10 discount.  We floated peacefully down the canals as the sky turned pink and watched Venice light up as night fell.  How romantic!

Venice from the water

Venice from the water

We also checked out the seafood market – amazing!  We wished we were staying somewhere self-contained so we could take some home to cook.  Instead, we did our research and had dinner at Osteria al Mascaron, known for its seafood pasta.  After a bit of confusion with the menu (the English version doesn’t really match up with the Italian, and pasta was listed as €28, minimum of 2 people – did that mean €14 each?) we shared the scampi spaghetti.  Words cannot adequately describe how amazing this was, so I’ll just leave you with a picture.

Best shrimp spaghetti ever!

Best shrimp spaghetti ever!

May 172009
 
Church in Florence

Church in Florence

Florence is the city that is credited with starting the Renaissance, and produced famous artists including Michelangelo and Leondardo.  Architecturally it is completely different from Rome.  Many of the building facades are flat, but heavily decorated with painted or mosaic features.

We were actually pretty bad tourists in Florence.

I think we’d both reached saturation point as far as churches, museums and art galleries go, so we laid low for most of our time there.  We also missed our opportunity to see Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia (no tickets left) and see some of the Renaissance art in the Uffizi Gallery (again, no tickets available).

We believe he was a revolutionary?

We believe he was a revolutionary?

So, I don’t think we’re qualified to really pass judgment on Florence.  Our experience there was good, but not great.

Osteria De'Golosi

Osteria De'Golosi

Of course, I can’t let a post go by without mentioning food!  We enjoyed some excellent traditional tuscan fare at Osteria De’Golosi.  We’re creatures of habit, so we went twice.  First time J had roasted cinta pork and I had pasta stuffed with pears and cheese (no photo sorry!).  Second time we both had tuscan specialities – I had chicken with fresh vegetables, and J had stuffed calamari with tomato sauce.  Delicious!

J's stuffed squid

J's stuffed squid

May 142009
 
Pompeii with Vesuvius in the background

Pompeii with Vesuvius in the background

For us Pompeii was a day trip from Rome – 4 hours travelling each way!  We’re still not quite sure if it was worth it; I think we were expecting better displays capturing those tragic moments where everything was covered with ash.  Also, they ‘ran out’ of maps (they have a printed No More Maps sign that looks like it comes out every day) so we spent much of our time trying to find where we were.

Fear preserved in time

Fear preserved in time

Nonetheless, the site has some extremely well preserved features of the Pompeii town from AD 79 when Mount Vesuvius blew.  At the entrance to one of the houses is the first ‘Beware of Dog’ sign, a beautiful mosiac on the floor.

Cave Canem

Cave Canem

It was also interesting to see a lot of the white marble structures had been repaired with red brick after the earthquake of AD 62.  Unfortunately for the citizens of Pompeii, there was no rebuilding after the eruption.

Pompeii Forum - notice the repair work to the pillars

Pompeii Forum - notice the repair work to the pillars

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May 132009
 
Trattoria der Pallaro

Trattoria der Pallaro

We heard about this Trattoria through the ever present and reliable Rick Steves’ Best of Europe guidebook.  There is no menu – you eat (or don’t) whatever they put in front of you.  Although, based on some reviews on Trip Advisor, the menu doesn’t change all that often.

First up is an antipasto course.  Raw fennel in olive oil (not a huge fennel fan), green olives, fava beans in an awesome tomatoey gravy, the world’s best proscuitto and pretty damn good salami and of course, crusty bread.  Shortly after we were brought this, they also brought out some fried risotto balls and some other fried patty, which were very tasty but escaped the camera.

Antipasto!

Antipasto!

Next up was the pasta course – a simple red tomato sauce, heavy on the parmesan (the way we like it!).

Pasta pasta

Pasta pasta

As if this wasn’t enough, the main was next.  Roast veal, broad beans with a tasty sauce, mozzarella balls and homemade potato chips.

Main course

Main course

Finally, dessert.  Apricot flan/tart with a shot of mandarin juice!

It counts as a serve of fruit right?

It counts as a serve of fruit right?

Phew.  All this food was only 25euros per person, including house wine and mineral water.

Trattoria der Pallaro is located at Largo der Pallaro 15, near Campo de’ Fiori.