Category Archives: Travel

The Great EU Quest: Spain – Figueres

For our final day in Spain we ventured out of the city of Barcelona towards the town of Figueres some 70+ miles away. We booked tickets on the highspeed train so the journey only took 55 minutes each way (regular trains take 2.5 hours, so this was a no brainer).

Breakfast was a feast after we confused the server at the train station’s sandwich kiosk… being the English person I am I felt that I would rather pay the extra 4€ than make a fuss at there being an extra sandwich. The sandwich I asked for (which was Spanish omelette) was perfect for breakfast and has inspired me to make my own when I am back in the UK.

So, why did we go to Figueres in the first place? Well…

 List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 69/100Sight: Teatre-Museu Dalí
Location: Figueres, Spain
Position: #361

 

It’s the home of the Dalí Theatre and Museum. The final Lonely Planet check of this trip and something of genuine interest. I remember back when there was the Dalí Experience in London and have since enjoyed seeing anything of his that I come across. Even his sketches and lesser known pieces are inherently interesting because of the surreal nature of things.

So it’s little wonder that this museum was incredibly interesting. The only issue was the abundance of tour groups. Mostly school groups. It just meant that, at times, it was hard to navigate around the narrow corridors of the museum or get a good view of all the artworks.

Still, that didn’t overly detract from the unique experience that having so much Dalí in one place affords. I mean where else can you have an entire room with furniture set up to show the face of Mae West if you see it from the right angle?

How about corridors filled with paintings of rocks that look like naked women, gilded money skeletons and busts crowned with bread? It’s a truly unique experience that I would recommend – just make sure to seek out Galatea of the Spheres. It’s a great painting that few people were paying attention to… which is a shame.

So, what do you do after all that? Well, we decided to go on a bit of trek to the Sant Ferran Castle. The museum of antique typewriters wasn’t quite tempting enough.

For a reasonable price (and some collateral) you can get access to the castle with its free audio guide. The audio guide is a brick where you need to press play and pause (because it is one continuous track) and actually speaks to you out loud rather than through earphones. Honestly, it all felt rather comical as images of groups of tourists with different guides all playing at the same time immediately sprang to mind. What an awful cacophony that must be.

I say must be because we were the only tourists there at the time. Other than people who actually worked at the castle we were on our own. This castle is massive and is, at least according to the guide, the biggest fortress of its kind in Europe.

Vast and empty. So it felt like we were playing a sandbox version of Uncharted with the audio guide acting as director’s commentary. We clambered up the parapets, observed the plains from high vantage points – which reminds me:

List item: Visit a Spanish plain to see if it rains there
Status: Completed

 

I think what we had was a pretty unique experience that others who come to the fortress in the summer time wouldn’t have. I mean, this is a site that was only in the triple figures for Facebook check-ins. I would find it hard to recommend this enough should you fine yourself in the Figueres area. The free audio guide alone (the interesting information, not the comical size) would be enough. The ability to explore in isolation is a bonus.

We still had a few hours left until our return train to Barcelona, so we figured it was time for lunch. It’s the first time I have ever had someone make fideua for me… And I have to say that I prefer the one I make more. Not just because of the fiddly shelling of prawns, but because I put chorizo in mine. It may not be as authentic as the one we had… but sometimes authenticity needs to give way if something tastes better.

Our final moments in Figueres were spent in the jewels section of the Dalí museum. Originally we were going to give this a miss because it didn’t sound as interesting, but boy were we wrong. I never realised just how much he did in the way of jewellery design.

So many of the pieces were exceptional. Some of them were able to move, including a beating heart of rubies within a golden casing. My favourites are the two pictured above: an elephant with a giant crystal on its back and a lapis eye that can be used to tell time. Truly this man was an amazing talent. I always felt this, but now I definitely know it.

An hour or so later and we were back in Barcelona. We took the metro to the Arc de Triomphe area of the city, just because it can be nice too see what remnants are left over from World Fairs. I mean, sure, this is no Eiffel Tower but this promenade has its own calming charms.

From here we, finally, managed to gain admittance to the Santa Maria del Mar. We tried a few days earlier, but it was during the 2-3 hour where you needed to pay and we didn’t see the point. So glad that we were able to get in for free as it was mighty impressive on the inside.

It was never going to beat the Sagrada Familia, but looking at the columns and ceiling work it feels like Gaudí might have got at least some inspiration from here. Even if it was the number and thinness of the columns used to support the structure. On the who it felt very pure and uncluttered… something I know Gaudí would have appreciated.

So here I am now. We polished off a dinner of paella and chocolate covered churros and now it it time to pack for the flight tomorrow afternoon. Thanks to EU customs I have 6 food list items that will be coming home with me and will likely become their own blog post incredibly soon.

I wish that we didn’t have to leave here so soon, but that’s the issue with not spending a full week somewhere. Somehow I doubt it will take another 27 years before I am back in Spain. Already the precursors of itineraries are springing up in my head – so maybe I’ll be visiting Grenada, Madrid or Seville at some point in the near future. I hope so.

Advertisements

The Great EU Quest: Spain – Sagrada Familia Day

For me it feels like the sites of today share the similar theme of different forms of worship. It’s a bit of a tenuous link, but one I think can apply to the first three things saw today.

 List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 67/100Sight: Sagrada Familia
Location: Barcelona, Spain
Position: #16

How do I start talking about the Sagrada Familia? I mean this is something that is the definition of breathtaking and the damned thing isn’t even finished yet. 9-10 years until completion and its construction has taken the work of generations of architects, planners and builders.

The outside of the church is amazing enough. It’s absolutely massive and the tallest towers are nowhere near completion yet. Hell, only two of the three facades are nearly done – the other just looked it had barely been started.

The sheer level of detail on the facades themselves are incredible. At the moment we can see those dedicated to the nativity and the crucifixion (the third and final facade is still under construction as of writing this). They completely contrast with the other – the nativity side being more exuberant with its carvings of animals and beautifully designed leaf doors.

It’s things like the incredibly ornate doors and the cryptogram on the side of the passion facade that show just huge this project is. With most of the original designs lost due in a fire started by rioting citizens the design and building of the Sagrada Familia really has become a group effort. Oh and this is all just the outside.

That first time I stepped into the basilica itself was literally breathtaking. I just stood there covered in goosebumps and had to take a minute to register as much as I could. If I believed in that sort of thing I guess it would be called a ‘religious experience’, but for me I’ll just say that I was incredibly overwhelmed by the beauty.

Because of the vastness of the interior it is impossible to find one picture that truly showcases what it looks like. It doesn’t help that, thanks to Gaudí’s amazing use of light, the colour inside the basilica changes throughout the day.

Why? Because of the stained glass windows. The colours and positioning of the windows have been done for maximum effect – cooler colours on one side and warmer shades on the other. When we were inside there was a lot of light coming from the warmer windows which gave the space above the alter a soft golden glow.

To be honest, I did not want to leave. I wanted to just stay inside and keep exploring the nuances in Gaudí’s design. Like how the columns were all slightly different in colour and ridging. The jewelled names of the Evangelists. The long list of names that can be found within the windows themselves. Just wow. I now know what a real life version of the stone forest of Nausicaa looks like – and I know I have to come back when it is complete.

Alas, we still had many things to see so it was goodbye and onto the second place of worship some 9 stops away on the Barcelona Metro – which I want to pay a massive compliment to. We bought a 10 trip ticket and that’s really going to see us through the whole trip.

 List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 68/100Sight: Camp Nou
Location: Barcelona, Spain
Position: #470

So yes, when I said worship I don’t think I was too out of order to put football under that umbrella. Under the insistence of the guide we went to visit Camp Nou. I drew the line at the the 25€ to do the tour since I have no interest in football. I know it’s a bit of a cop out, but that’s expensive for something you don’t really want to do.

Still, that’s another Lonely Planet site ticked off… just not one that I found too interesting.

So, hitched another ride on the Metro and got off at the southern end of La Rambla – but first we took a turn around the marina, because why not. I keep forgetting that this is a seaside city. I had colleagues telling me to go to the beach, which I didn’t do because I have no real interest in beaches. I do love the water though, even if this was a wee bit cluttered by all the port buildings.

We eventually made it up La Rambla and into what would best be described as my place of worship: the food market. In this instance La Boqueria. It’s not as big as Borough Market or Tsukiji Fish Market, but it was so interesting to look around the place!

Sadly I fell short of my aim to find a place that sold fried bull testicles (or criadillas), so I guess I’ll have to wait for another trip to Spain before crossing that food item off the list. Still, I managed to purchase some list chorizo and cheese that I need to somehow get back to London in one piece. The list of food items that I am bringing back to the UK just keeps on growing.

After a short rest in the hotel room we were back on the road, well the metro, funicular and cable car, but you know what I mean. Our final destination was Montjuïc Castle so we could get some good views over the city.

The first thing that struck me was a weird smell that was very much like the smell of cooking Heinz Spaghetti Hoops. I guess there was a restaurant nearby and the wind was in the right direction? Or maybe a tomato field was on fire? I have no idea, but what I DO know is how gratifying it is to still qualify as a reduced fee for some of these Barcelona attractions.

This is possibly the best view you can get of the city of Barcelona. The seagulls appear to really appreciate it as they circle above the sea-facing parts of the castle. Be careful of their divebombing – the hub had a misadventure with one of them crapping very near him and just clipping his forearm. Gross.

We walked down the mountain, taking in the views of Barcelona on the way down and coming across the famous site where the Olympic diving competitions took place 25 years ago. I completely get how those fantastic pictures were taken now of those divers with the city skyline in the background.

Dinner was another tapas affair – this time at Cerveceria Catalana. I mention this restaurant by name because the food here was beautiful. We ordered 7 different dishes and the bill still came out to under 40€. Some highlights were the fried artichokes, the Spanish omelette and goats cheese with escalivada (that last one was the hub’s pick, and the boy did well there).

So yea, I really think we should have been here for longer. I mean, Barcelona is one of THE cities in Europe and we only had two full day to explore it. Still, we sure made the most of it. For our final day in Spain we are venturing to the nearby town of Figueres to take in the Dalí museum. Bit nervous about this considering the Picasso Museu yesterday… but I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

The Great EU Quest: Spain – Gaudí and Barcelona

So here we are with the first of two full days in Barcelona, or should I say Gaudíville considering how much of his handiwork I will end up seeing and just how in love this city appears to be with its native son.

The first stop of the day was the Casa Battló (although I really do prefer the nickname ‘house of bones’ considering the balconies look like jawbones and vertebrae. I’ve been inside a lot of residences when in vacation, but I don’t think that I have seen or will ever see anything like this ever again. It is extraordinary, with plenty of kudos going to go the people who now run this as the augmented reality audio tour helped bring this sublime house to life.

It’s hard to adequately describe this building. Many people have tried, but I guess the best way would be that this house feels alive. The flying turtles of the guide might have helped with that… but so much of this house was utterly astonishing. Not only is this house a masterpiece on an artistic level, but it was made to be incredibly liveable with innovative and practical solutions for light and temperature regulation.

The chimneys and flourishes on the roof were another thing altogether, but I think I have spent long enough on Casa Battló – after all this isn’t the only Gaudí build that we saw today.

So off we went on our first trip on the Barcelona Metro to visit Park Güell… where we had no idea of the steep walk that was awaiting us. Whilst I would have made it up the hill without the use of escalators, I was very appreciative of their existence.

I was also appreciative of some of the views of Barcelona that we managed to get from the top of this mountain. I know that I saw the Sagrada Familia from the airplane as it started in its descent, but it still shocks me just how much this basilica in construction dominates the Barcelona landscape. I just cannot wait until we pay it a visit tomorrow.

Park Güell is one of those things I might not have gone straight for if it wasn’t for Yuri!!! On Ice. Sad but true. There was a pretty sweet scene in the show with Yurio and the Kazakh skater, which made me want to check out the Monument Park section. It wasn’t exactly the most representative of the crowds that gather there, but hoards of tourists would have spoilt the mood.

Speaking of hoards, it really was a good thing I booked the tickets to the Monument Zone in advance. By the time we got there the only tickets left were for the final window some 5-6 hours later. After the problems we had getting into the Anne Frank Huis I think I have well and truly learned my lesson about pre-booking certain attractions.

Some of the stuff that Gaudí planned and executed for this park are worthy of many a roll of film. A lot of photos were taken of the iconic staircases and the open theatre sections. I, however, heavily fell for some of the rockwork in the free section of the park. It’s extraordinary to see how he was able to use the contours of the mountain to then advantage of his work. It just feels like the mountain has chosen to sprout this terrace with its walkways, vaulted ceilings and twisted columns. Just amazing.

Sadly it was time to say goodbye to Gaudí, at least for the moment, and go for lunch. Nothing major, just some really nice sandwiches from a cafe en route to the metro station. The botifarra blanca sandwich was my favourite of the two – sadly it isn’t the botifarra dolca from the food list, but I know of a butcher that sells this and is next open on our final day in Spain… so watch this space I guess.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 66/100Sight: Museu Picasso
Location: Barcelona, Spain
Position: #371

Our last main site of the day was the Museu Picasso. Finally, a Lonely Planet thing to be ticked off! Now, considering this is on the list and Casa Battló is not, I was very disappointed.

I think the problem is that in order to have a museum dedicated to a particular artist you really need to have some of the major masterpieces. Especially if you are going to rate it among the top 500 world sites to be visited. I mean, sure the Van Gogh museum didn’t have all of them, but there were so many in that museum to make it an extremely worthwhile visit.

However, there is nothing here that I recognised. Also, which was rather telling, this museum appeared to be missing works from 10-20 years of Picasso’s life. This was the time where he painted things like Guernica, The Weeping Woman or (my favourite) Three Musicians. It was interesting to see just how talented he was as a painter from an incredibly young age… but much like some of the works on display, this museum feels a bit unfinished.

We did a bit of wandering until ultimately heading back to the hotel. Seeing how it was both Sunday and Father’s Day a lot of things were closed. Not the Ham Museum though. As tempting as it was our feet were aching and some pre-dinner chilling was needed.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die

Food item: Cadi Butter

Hooray! I can tick off a food list item. It was one of those I was really hoping to find as well. You cannot get this in the UK and this now leaves me with just one butter to find. Sadly it’s Russian butter and whilst I would love to try that… I know I won’t be exactly welcome.

Cadi butter is pale and highly spreadable. Compared to other butters I have tried the flavour fairly muted. It’s nowhere near as creamy and doesn’t have as intense a flavour profile as I am used to. It’s really nice on a Tuc biscuit as the butter is unsalted and the salt on the Tuc gives it that extra punch. So yes, this needs salt.

Dinner ended up being just off La Rambla (a proper shifty will be done tomorrow) because literally no restaurant on that street scores higher than 2.5-3/5 on Trip Advisor. I mean I know tourist traps are a thing, but this is ridiculous.

Still, we were directed to a restaurant where we had our first authentic paella.

Food item: Fasolia Gigandes

Two in one day. Phew. You can’t see the beans from the picture. But they were most certainly there buried among some of the best tasting paella I’ve ever had. Apparently this restaurant is known for having good paella, so who am I to disagree. According to the menu this was a Valencian paella, which means I probably just ate my first rabbit meat.

So yes, some hazelnut gelato later and I am sat in the hotel typing up the day. I am really looking forward to what I will be seeing tomorrow morning. Hopefully I’ll be able to get some half decent pictures!

Progress: 631/751

The Great EU Quest: Spain – Arrival

There are times where it feels like you are not meant to reach your destination – this trip to Barcelona is just such an example.

Let’s just start off with a quick number crunch on the EU list:

List Item: Visit all EU countries
Progress: 15/28

I know that I am going to get to a point where I am still trying to complete the EU list after the UK has made its awkward departure, but for now I think I will just end up saying any country that has ever been part of the EU. That’ll cover me should another country make a similar decision or, for whatever reason, the EU ceases to exist.

Country: Spain
Year first visited: 2017

Anyway, back to more pleasant topics – the fact that we almost missed the plane thanks to train troubles. Oh yes, in order to get to Stansted Airport from South East London you only have two main options: train/tube or car. When you don’t drive that means a £50-60 trip in an Uber, so public transport it is.

Now imagine you get to the only station in London that goes to Stansted (aka Liverpool Street, try the cheese shop if you have time), here has been an issue with the line (that Google Maps is unaware of) and you have to make a 2-3 hour detour via Cambridge. Needless to say we just ran and ran once we got to the airport and just about made it. Not exactly the best way to start a holiday, but at least we managed to get to Barcelona!

I know it has only been 4-5 hours since landing, but I have already begun to fall for this city in a major way. It was amazing to see some of the snow capped mountains on the way in, as well as the towering presence of the Sagrada Familia during the plane’s descent.

As of the moment we haven’t explored too far, but we have had a good nose around the area near the hotel (where we managed to get a free room upgrade – which came with a balcony view and a free bottle of cava).

One of the places that we came across was Catalunya Square. We re-visited this square later in the evening because of the promise of dancing water fountains. We weren’t disappointed. They were very cute.

Of course the big question of the evening ended up being: “what will we have for dinner”. I think that during this visit to Barcelona there are two main dinners we want to have – paella and tapas/pintxos.

From the pictures you can see that we ended up going for tapas. A lot of them were things I have had before back in Britain, but being in the home of tapas everything did taste better. Especially the anchovies. They were ruddy gorgeous.

Being spring I also managed to get some calçots (which were deep-fried) and romesco sauce. I do love these giant spring onions very much and would highly recommend them once spring rolls around again.

A bit of a walk later and it was back to the hotel so hub could drain the cava as I write up the day. I have a feeling that I won’t be ticking off many food items during this holiday, but hey ho there’s so much to see anyway so any additional foods will be a bonus.

Oh Vienna – Day 3: Schönbrunn

My last full day in Vienna? That just feels incredibly wrong. This is the problem of having these short weekend breaks, as lovely as they are it is just over too soon.

img_4502
Still, we made the most out of today and the way to do that is with a good breakfast (well, brunch by the time we started). In many ways Vienna has similar prices to London, but if you are smart about it you will not break the bank. See this breakfast for two that I shared with the hub. It really kept us going through most of the day, where we were on our feet pretty much all the time.

img_4506
The destination today was Schönbrunn, which is a very short metro ride out of the city centre. The main draw is the UNESCO Heritage recognised palace and gardens.

The palace was the former summer residence for the Habsburg emperors of Austria-Hungary and is absolutely massive. I swear that we don’t have palaces to this scale in the UK, when you consider that this former hunting lodge expanded into well over 1000 rooms.

img_4511
I would be so interested to see what the grounds are like in summer with full flower beds and running fountains. In December it is still beautifully grand (and smells of cinnamon thanks to the resident Christmas market), but a little bit bleak.

There were signs that said you would need to wait 2.5 hours before being able to enter the palace to have a look around. What these signs did not tell you is that you could head in straight away if you bought one of the combined tickets to another nearby attraction. We know this purely because it was our plan to do this anyway.

The interior of the palace that we saw as part of the “Imperial Tour” was extremely grand. Sadly there were signs everywhere that said no photography was allowed inside, but I think we all disobeyed that rule when it came to the this grand ballroom.

img_4505

I haven’t never been to Versailles, but if the hall of mirrors there is meant to be greater than this ballroom… well I think I know where my next planned trip might end up being. Seriously though, going to this palace, the Imperial Crypt and seeing how much they still revere Maria Theresa makes me want to learn more about the history of the Habsburgs. If you have any suggestions of where I can start, please let me know.

After an hour long tour of the palace we walked through the gardens on the way to Schönbrunn Tiergarten (ie the zoo). This was originally started as an imperial menagerie  and has since expended into one of the best zoos I have ever been to.

img_4552 img_4528

This is not just because of the variety of animals (which includes polar bears, sea lions, leopards and pandas), but also the condition of the enclosures. This is a zoo that has successfully bred polar bears and pandas so you know they are doing something right.

I has running about this zoo like a little kid (who was cold seeing how we didn’t get too far about freezing today) looking at all the animals that I could see in the few hours we had in this amazing zoo.

img_4545

Of course we ended up spending a lot of time with the pandas. How couldn’t I? They’re pandas! We were there a solid 10 minutes hoping it would turn around and only when we went to leave did she suddenly move and allow me to take such cool pictures. This was better than seeing the pandas at Ueno in Tokyo. Can’t believe I was actually so close.

img_4562

We stayed into the zoo until it closed. The closing announcement came through whilst we were in the aquarium staring at a rather lively octopus. So it was back to the city centre before we got locked in with the crocodiles.

img_4573

Rather than heading straight for food (we were all hungry by now) we visited the, now dark, Stadtpark to see some of the statues. The main ones were still lit up anyway so the emptiness of the park just added to the ambience. The statue that I came to see was this golden one of Strauss. It’s nice to see someone other than Mozart being revered in this city.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die
img_4579Food item: Linzer Torte

By now we needed a sit down so it was an early evening cake and drinks before a final runthrough of the Christmas markets. Finally I was able to try some Linzer torte. I got it as a slice because could not find it as the typical torte. Better than Sacher torte by a mile. The toasted hazlenuts and the crumbly cake are brought together by the seam of redcurrant jam. Where the Sacher torte was a disappointment this Linzer torte is a pleasant surprise.

img_4582Food item: Horseradish
Progress: 593/751

One of the big things that my mum wanted to have from the market stalls was some Tiroler gröstl. We had it when we were in Kitzbühl back in 1999 and there were stalls selling it here. To my surprise they put grated horseradish on top. There is nothing I like more than a surprise list item and this horseradish really complimented the fried bacon and potatoes. Makes me feel like I am 9 again.

img_4584

The final Christmas market we went back to was the one on the Rathausplatz, which is both the biggest one and the nearest to our hotel. There were some last minute purchases and a complete final runthrough. I can’t believe we are going from somewhere this filled with Christmas and going back to a flat where the decorations aren’t even up yet!

img_4587

Of course I finished the evening with a hot dog. I have not had anywhere near enough wurst since I have been in Austria and at least I was able to finish this trip the right way.

That’s it for Vienna. There is a separate food post coming up where I will finish off this run of posts, but for now here are some things I will miss about Vienna:

1) Classically trained buskers – we have seen a violinist, a cellist and a tuba player playing film themes on the street. In London you are more likely to see a man playing a traffic cone.

2) Seeing Mozart’s face everywhere i go. We don’t do the same in London and now I want to know why we don’t plaster all our tourist shops with the face of Dickens or Shakespeare. Such a missed opportunity.

3) Architecture. It’s overblown and utterly amazing. The commute to work will feel all the more boring after visiting Vienna

img_4581

4) Christmas markets – come on London we can do something on this scale and with this high level of quality. Sod off with your Hyde Park Winter Wonderlands and give us something decent!

Oh Vienna – Day 2: Coffins and Art

So begins the first of the two full days that we have in Vienna. Being a city of coffee culture it is very important to find a good place for breakfast. Thanks to a bit of googling I found a place near St Stephen’s Cathedral called Haas & Haas.

img_4453
This is one of those places that was built for the long brunch. The sheer variety of breakfast items (from dim sum to a full English) was astonishing. Seeing as we are in the German speaking world there was no way I could say no to Weisswurst, a pretzel and Bavarian sweet mustard. I also had a lovely pot of rooiboss tea flavoured with cacao nibs and coconut. Truly this is the breakfast of champions.

img_4466
Of course the logical first place to visit after such a breakfast was the imperial crypt. Looking at it from the outside this is a very unassuming church, but this does not reflect what you find in the basement.

img_4458
Coffins. Rooms filled with the coffins of members of the Habsburg royal line. I have never seen anything quite like this. True, there were some coffins on the simpler side but, then there would be one covered in bronzed skulls, veiled women and maybe an angel or two.

img_4462
Nothing could compare to the massive coffin (if you can call it that) of Maria Theresa. This was bigger than a car and had many details including large weeping women and engravings of buildings. Every coffin afterwards just paled in comparison.

img_4465

You had a special room for Kaiser Franz Joseph, Sisi and Rudolf, but those coffins were still a plainer affair than Maria Theresa’s.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 65/100img_4470Sight: MuseumsQuartier
Location: Vienna, Austria
Position: #338

We walked from the imperial crypts to the MuseumsQuartier and…honestly I don’t have much to say about this place. Maybe it was the wrong time of year to visit? But after coming from the crypt and walking passed some amazing buildings via the Maria-Theresien-Platz; well it was an extreme let down to be honest.

How is this the only thing from Vienna on the Lonely Planet travel list? This has really given me some doubts about the rest of the list.

img_4468

After this disappointment we spent the rest of the afternoon in the Art History Museum (pictured is the Museum of Natural History, but apart from a few sculptures these are pretty much identical).

img_4478

Inside this building was a melange of marblework. The hallways were just an astonishing mixture of colour and polish, which just goes to show that some of these baroque are just as beautiful on the inside as they are on the outside.

img_4482The first rooms we went through were paintings from the Flemish, Dutch and Germanic schools. In it we found the twin painting of the Tower of Babel scene we saw in Rotterdam. Strange, yet lovely way for these two rather different cities to be linked.

img_4482 img_4483

Amongst the other paintings we saw were some rather weird looking Jesuses (so many great painters just cannot depict babies well), a strange depiction of groping and a very famous painting of a young Catherine of Aragon.

img_4488 img_4489

We roamed around the other painting gallery for a while before heading for the antiquities. In the Roman section I was very much taken by the weird room where they had arranged a lot of statue heads/busts so they were all facing one direction. It was a very strange thing to walk in on.

img_4492

It was getting towards 4:30 when we left and we need drinks and snacks. Thanks to the Christmas markets you are kinda spoilt for choice at the moment. Personally I felt the flavoured pretzels calling my name and went for a pizza pretzel.

We headed back to the hotel room via a bunch of smaller Christmas markets and Julius Meinl (where I found a few food items that we will be saving for the day we leave).

img_4496

Dinner was our attempt at finding something Austrian to eat, and I found a place on Annagasse that did the trick. Pancake soup to start, Wiener schnitzel for main and a cheese strudel for pudding. I walked out of that restaurant a very happy man for I had eaten schnitzel in its spiritual home of Vienna.

We went for a final turn around the main Christmas market at the Rathausplatz before turning in for the night. We managed to be there until it closed…

img_4500

…but not before we got ourselves a langos. Think of it as a Hungarian treat where you deep fry a disk of dough and then brush it with garlic butter. Seriously, I love how much this city and their Christmas markets speak to my Germanic roots.

Let’s see what tomorrow brings. Hopefully some gröstl.

Oh Vienna – Day 1: Arrival

I know, I know. “Oh how the other half live” and all that. Honestly, I cannot believe how I ended going on 4 holidays/minibreaks in two months. I really need to space these out more. Seriously, my passport has been water damaged since the first day in New York and I need to get that dealt with.

img_4445

Vienna is one of those places that, for whatever reason, never majorly featured too highly in my holiday consciousness. I knew it was beautiful and know people who have been there and really loved it, but as I was walking around the city centre I felt this weird disconnect.

It was something along the lines of “I’m in Vienna? This is Vienna? How have I lucked out and ended up in Vienna?” Maybe I just went through a bit of disassociation due to having to get up at 04:55 this morning.

The first day in a new place has the tendency to be odd. You need time to get used to a place in terms of geography and culture. Having gotten to our hotel little after midday we still had most of the day to explore the local area.

img_4390

You don’t have to walk too far in Vienna’s centre to come to the conclusion that the architecture in this city Is deliciously overblown. Buildings aren’t only grand, but they are domineering with their flourishes, statutes and cornices. This is by no means a criticism. It’s just that in London you’ll get a small area with interesting architecture and then it’s pretty pedestrian, whereas in the Vienna city centre it’s pretty much all singing all dancing wherever you end up.

img_4393

I mean just look at their parliament building. There is nothing about this building that doesn’t feel grand about this place. Makes sense that it was originally built as a seat of power for the empire of Austria-Hungary.

We spent most of the afternoon wandering the streets, looking at buildings and trying to find some form of lunch. Vienna is famous for its cafe culture and, honestly, we were looking in all the wrong places as we found nothing for a very long time.

img_4403

Having given up hope on finding a place to have a sit down meal (where the queue didn’t stretch out of the door) so we opted for the classic bratwurst in a roll. You can never go wrong with that.img_4405

Of course this is when we started to spot cafes. So, we dragged our tired feet into the Mozart Cafe (side note: everything here is Mozart themed – it’s actually quite weird) and it allowed me to grab the first, of what may be a small number of, food item.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die
Progress: 591/751
img_4404Food item: Sachertorte

Aside from schnitzel there are few things more Viennese than a Sachertorte. It was invented in the Hotel Sacher around the corner from this cafe (would have gone in, but lines) and is pretty much the city dessert. Think of it as a dense chocolate cake with apricot jam spread around the sides and in the middle. It is then finished off with dark chocolate icing and a quiet of whipped cream.

Think this cake sounds rich? Then you would be right. Pretty damned moist as well, which is also helped by the side of cream. The cup next to it was a hot chocolate with pistachio syrup. I guess chocolate cake was to satisfy that craving.

img_4435

By the time we left the cafe the sun had gone down and we were able to enjoy Vienna for the reason we actually came here – Christmas lights. Not just one uniform set of lights either; it would appear that each street do their own lights since there was no real repetition that we saw.

Not only are there so many lights, but also there are so many Christmas markets dotted all around Vienna. I think we came across six different ones today and I am sure there are more left to be discovered.

img_4447

We meandered around and ended up at the biggest of all the Christmas markets: outside the town hall (and coincidentally a 3-4 minute walk from out hotel). There are over 100 stalls here selling food, souvenirs and all things Christmas. I know that during our time in Vienna we will be back here every night for a roam, a browse and a snack.

img_4449

For dinner myself and the hub opted for soup in a loaf of bread. Honestly, we just stood there eating soup out of the hollowed out loaf before then eating the bowl itself. There was just something so satisfying about ripping apart that bread bowl that had become saturated with garlic soup.

After an early start this morning it is an early night tonight so we feel human as we tackle the one Lonely Planet area of Vienna.

A Canção de Lisboa – Day 4: Belém

After the incredible wetness of yesterday’s trip to Sintra today’s sunny weather with a cool breeze was a welcome antidote. As I write this up it is currently raining outside and I just about hear it over the Jenny Hval album playing on my iPod.

img_4143
As with the previous two days, this day had a focus on a particular are of Greater Lisbon. Today’s focus was on Belém. How did we get there? Why, by an iconic yellow Lisbon tram of course.

To say it was packed would be an understatement (it was on par with Japanese subways), but I had the best seat in the house: right behind the driver. It was so interesting to see the driver at work by using the handles to modify the speed. Also it was just fun to watch him gesturing annoyedly at everyone that crossed the tram’s path.

An interesting tidbit that I learnt about this particular tram route (Route 15) is that this route between Rossio and Belém has been in operation for over 140 years. It’s just that it was previously run by horse-drawn coaches.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 64/100Sight: Mosteiro Dos Jerónimos
Location: Lisbon, Portugal
Position: #372

The tram stopped right next to our major destination of the day: the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. I could see it coming over the horizon whilst we were in the tram, but in person the façade is something else. For one thing it is absolutely massive. Also, the level of detail on everything is extremely intricate.

Considering all the Manueline architecture we saw on display in Sintra I honestly thought I had seen Portuguese architecture at some of its most sumptuous. Until I stepped into the cloisters of the monastery that is.

img_4147

Perfect sunshine is what you need to enjoy this courtyard and that is what we got. Honestly, I could have just stayed in this courtyard for an inordinate amount of time checking in on all the different flourishes and decorations. But we continued our tour around which meant visits to the chapter house, the refectory and of course the church next door.img_4165

The church and the monastery together was enough to take my breath away. With columns that, in places, looked like they were made of snaking stone vines this church just felt like it had grown from the Earth. Whilst not the largest church I have ever been in this just felt cavernous. It also, however, felt like it had not been finished. There were empty recesses where one would have expected there to be statues and/or paintings. So I wonder what happened there.

In order to keep the theme going, out next stop was the Belém Tower. This is one of those structures that has had many uses over the year from political prison to customs house to lighthouse. Considering the prominence and the placement of the tower all these uses seem to make a modicum of sense.

img_4191

During our visit to the Belém Tower the top two floors were under reconstruction, which was a shame, but we still found our share of joy in the remaining 3-4 floors on offer. You pretty much go inside for the views looking out as, honestly, there isn’t too much to see on the inside. Still, entrance was free thanks to the Lisboa Card so why not go inside.

It was easily time to grab something to eat so we took a walk along the waterfront to our lunch destination. This is a place that I had specifically researched so that I could cross a rather odd mollusc off the list.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You DieFood item: Goose-Necked Barnacles

Yes, we had goose-necked barnacles (percebes in Portuguese) as part of our lunch. This restaurant was the only place where I could find them talking about selling it in 100g increments. Considering these are over £45 a kilo you can see why I would only want a small amount.

Seeing them there was rather intimidating as I had no idea how to eat them. I ended up watching a brief YouTube tutorial on my phone to make sure we got our money’s worth. Essentially you need to grab them by the beaky end, twist and then pull lightly to reveal the tender edible insides.

Tastewise they share a similarity to the sweetness of lobster meat but with a higher level of salt as you would expect in shellfish. It sucks that these are probably amongst the nicest shellfish that I have ever eaten since it is unlikely that I’ll have this opportunity again.

img_4208

Obviously we needed more food so we each had a prego steak roll. If Nandos is anything to go by, then we most definitely had a very Portuguese lunch. A very delicious (and once again, reasonable) one it was too.

Since it was free we decided to nip into the National Archaeological Museum. Good thing it was free as it was pretty nondescript to be honest. For a country that launched many an exhibition to Brazil and parts of Africa I am surprised there wasn’t more here. There must be a bigger collection somewhere else one would hope.

img_4215

For the rest of the afternoon we did a bit of final exploring and shopping before heading back to the room to freshen up for dinner. Sadly the church we intended to see was closed for choir practice, but we got to exploring the Barrio Alto and I met the best rooster in the world. What more can I say.

img_4219

For our final dinner we went to a real mom and pop place as recommended on TripAdvisor. For whatever reason I decided to not heed the surprise of the guy when I said I would be ordering cod cheeks – I understood this when the food arrived. As nice as the meat was, there was not a lot of it and I had to carve it off of this boiled fish head that had been cut in half. Young me would have seen the teeth and panicked, I just got annoyed that they got in my way of cod flesh.

img_4220
Food item: Abacaxi Pineapple

An unexpected thing we saw on menu was abacaxi pineapple, but there it was in the fruit section. They used the term ananas on the same menu which gave the tip that this was the right pineapple. And it was! Slightly sweeter than a regular pineapple (just not the explosion of flavour that was the Azores pineapple) this made for a refreshing end to the meal. Only it wasn’t the end of the meal.

Here’s the thing. Portuguese cheeses are 2-3 times the price in the UK so I would be a fool to not try and cross as many of these off the list whilst I was here. With this I have crossed off all them from the list. So, mission complete.

img_4221Food items: Azeitão and Serra da Estrela
Progress: 589/751

We started off with the Azeitão which was soft and gooey middle. It had a medium nose with some acidity and a slightly salty edge on first taste. Then the tanginess hits you right in the face. This is not on the same level as the Boulette D’Avesnes, and I guess it’s more like Taleggio. Maybe a really strong Camembert but not as creamy or straw-like. Acid notes with a creamy finish. The rind is edible and, somehow, manages to calm it down.

Then there was the Serra de Estrela, which is referred to as the king of Portuguese cheeses. In terms of texture this is like eating a cheese moose or cheese foam. You can cut the top off and scrape out the insides with a cracker. It’s truly something to behold.

The taste starts off mild and after a few bites acidity hits. Nowhere near as strong as the Azeitão though, but it comes with an aftertaste that is almost like hay or whatever those sheep were eating. It is the ultimate cheese of the Portuguese countryside.

Now I am at the end of my time here there are so many takeaway messages from these days spent in Lisbon.

1) This place is a treasure trove of food items. Seriously, when I consider the number of days that I have been here and the number of food items I have had – there is a huge concentration here.

2) Portuguese cuisine is very much it’s own thing. I came in with the wrong thought that it was just a variation on Spanish. So not true.

3) Aside from the men who kept trying to sell me hash on the street, Portuguese people seem to be hospitable.

4) The metro stations are designed to make you are hungry as friggin’ possible. All day today I could smell popcorn on the metro. It was baked goods a few days ago. So, do they rotate the smells to stop you getting used to it?

The biggest take home message of them all is, obviously, how lovely it is in Lisbon. A return trip is likely to happen – mainly so I can try to experience Sintra on a clear day. In terms of other possible trips to Portugal, I would very much like to give Porto a go, so any suggestions welcome.

A Canção de Lisboa – Day 3: Sintra

I know that going anywhere in Europe in November comes with a risk of rain, but looking at the weather broadcast the night before we came to Lisbon gave us a false sense of optimism. But still, we didn’t quite expect the weather we got today.

Anyway let’s backtrack to the beginning.

I have a lot of respect for the public transport. We did not have to wait long for anything today. The longest was a 5 minute wait and the train was already sat there waiting.

Sintra is about a 40 minute train journey from where we were staying in Rossio (and the journey was free thanks to the Lisboa cards that we bought). When in Sintra we bought the 5€ tourist bus round ticket as recommended… and as I would also recommend.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 63/100Sight: Sintra
Location: Lisbon, Portugal
Position: #142

The whole day was spent seeing the sights of Sintra so it is a bit difficult to know when to say this was ticked off.

img_4060

We started out in the historical town centre of Sintra with a visit to the National Palace. The most distinctive things about this palace are the two conical chimneys. They look so out of place, and yet they really make the palace special.

img_4055
Speaking of special, this royal palace was amazing on the inside. So many rooms that are impeccably decorated in many different ways. Most have rather obvious names, such as the pictured Swan Room, and feature beautifully painted ceilings, ornate tiling or both. It was a real eye opener to see some of these beautiful designs and continue my learning of the Moorish influence of this area of Europe.

img_4095

As we are on the topic of Morrish, the second of the three main stops on the tourist bus route. On a clear day the views from the top of the highest tower must be exceptional. On this day, it was breathtaking (and wet) to see the clouds physically roll in over the walls. There was something very Skyrim, Hound of the Baskervilles and Game of Thrones about the sheer amount of cloud that was swamping the castle.

The walk from the bus stop to the castle did not give us any warning about how wet and cloudy it was about to become. In fact, it was clear enough for us to be able to appreciate the sheer scope of the second outer set of walls. It was one when we started going up a tower and commencing a wall walk that it became clear just how wet the rest of the day was going to be.img_4099
Looking back on the day – the ruins of the Moorish Castle really was the highlight of the  day in Sintra. I actually cannot think of the last time I saw such a large set of ruins from the Middle Ages.

img_4128

A fairly short walk away from the castle was the final stop of the route – the Pena Palace. Now, I would not be surprised if Disney took a cue from here when designing some of their parks. As a palace it was designed for fun (having converted an old monastery) and the bright colour scheme on the outside really does agree with this.

As with the National Palace, the insides are beautifully decorated. However, the decorations here are a lot less subtle and there are more (smaller) rooms. Some of them have beautiful trompe-lœil painted walls whilst others feature tiles. You can also see many specially designed chandeliers and light fixtures including a rather beautiful glass chandelier meant to resemble a morning glory.

I have no doubt that we would have been able to appreciate the Pena Palace more of it was not for the near constant rain. For example, walking around the walls should give wonderful views rather than the sea of clouds. Still, it didn’t deter us from looking around some of the grounds, but first we had to eat some of the Sintra cheese tarts that we bought in the town centre.

img_4134
We made for the so-called Valley of Lakes which is at one of the lowest points of the Pena Park. These specially designed lakes looked extra otherworldly in the mist (Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ came to mind… but only after we skipped down a slope singing a song from The Wizard of Oz).

A number of the lakes feature ornate duckhouses. These might have made me jealous of ducks and their wonderful digs. But that my problem apparently.

img_4137
Flashforward a few hours and we are back in Lisbon having dinner. For the first time ever I actually decided to have octopus for dinner. Sure, it looked like it was going to reach up and grab me, but the results were rather delicious with lime juice and fried potatoes. I can only imagine my reaction to this when I was in Portugal 16 years ago. The word ‘mortified’ comes to mind.img_4140
Since it was still early there was a chance to wander around the nearby shopping streets to get some souvenir and gift shopping done. We might have spent a bit too much on this, but with Christmas lights starting to go up in Lisbon how could we not?

One more full day here. I really have fallen for this city. Aside from the many times I have been offered drugs, the people are just so friendly and helpful. Here’s to the final day as I scarf pastries down my trap.

A Canção de Lisboa – Day 2: Alfama and the Oceanarium

Never let it be said that we don’t pack things into a day on holiday. So many things done today that it really feels like a day of two (rather different) halves.

img_3965
We started out by heading for one of the three Lonely Planet Travellist places that I am hoping to hit up on this trip. Our walk took us first to Lisbon Cathedral, whose presence was absolutely massive amongst the surrounding smaller houses.

Inside it is a bit barer than some of the other cathedrals I have been to recently, but there are still some really impressive architectural aspects. To get into the main cathedral is free, but if you want to venture around the cloisters and treasury there is a 4€ fee.

img_3971

Well worth it just to know that the money is going towards the upkeep of the cathedral and the archaeological excavation currently happening on the centre of the cloisters. Already they have been able to find old Roman and Islamic remains. Who knows what else they’ll find.

img_3983

The treasury is worth it just to be able to get the view from above the cathedral. Never have I ever been so close to a stained glass window that I could make out such a wealth of detail. It made me wish I knew more about the saints and their symbols to better identify them. Hey ho.img_3989
We went across the road to the Church of St Anthony. I think this is the first time that I have been to a church build on the birthplace of a Saint. As you can probably guess, that meant this church had its fair share of pilgrims making their way to the crypt to say their prayers before buying things from the gift shop.

As for us we were able to enjoy the opulent decorations on display in the main church. Gold, gold, gold as far as the eye could see. Also the desiccated corpse of a young Saint Justina. The second time, after Catania, where I have seen a dead body on display in a church.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 62/100img_3994Sight: Lisbon’s Alfama
Location: Lisbon, Portugal
Position: #336

So here we are in the first of the Lonely Planet Travelist areas in Lisbon. Alfalfa is an area of Lisbon characterized by winding streets, colourful buildings, lots of little shops and quite a few churches.

It’s hard to just to talk about an area like its a landmark, but it was just such a pleasure to walk through its streets and take in the surrounding as we went higher and higher.

At the top of the hill, and I think technically out of the Alfama, is the Castelo de São Jorge. At the top of one of the towers is, as we overheard from a guided tour, the highest point in Lisbon.

img_4004

This is another one of the places where you could just spend a wealth of time taking in the views. We did take our sweet time in the castle grounds just looking at as many different views of Lisbon as we could find.

img_4006

The castle itself was large and impressive. Just reading up on the age of some parts of this castle (we’re talking 12th century here, with the hill having been occupied since 4th century BC) just makes you feel humble. That is until you find yourself hugging walls as you clamber down steep stairs whilst singing the New Girl theme song.

This was the end of the first half of the day. The middle was characterised by getting annoyed at the Lisbon bus system after buses just didn’t arrive when they were meant to (as in we waited for 40 minutes and the bus that was meant to run ‘every 15 minutes’ just didn’t materialise… we later found out that the road was closed for works some 100 metres away) so let’s skip on through.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Dieimg_4015Food item: Sweet Marjoram

Lunch was at about 2pm in the cafe attached to the Lisbon Oceanarium. It was here that I somehow managed to tick off a food item since they used sweet marjoram in one of their sandwiches. It just goes to prove that you never really know when you are going to come across one of these. Maybe Lisbon is just a treasure trove of these.

A quick lunch later and we were in the Oceanarium, which is apparently the largest indoors aquarium in Europe. It was also magnificent.

img_4036

The whole thing is centred around one large ocean tank that contains my new best friend: a sunfish that I have called Derp. There are other things in there like devil rays, groupers, sharks and guitarfish; but Derp is truly the magnetic presence of the tank. Okay maybe not, just watching the fish was enough, but actually seeing a sunfish in the flesh was something truly special.

img_4039

There are a lot of other exhibits in the aquarium including penguins, puffins, otters, jellyfish and a whole wealth of other creatures. Seriously, this is an impressive aquarium to visit and (thanks to it being a Thursday in the off season) it was actually rather quiet. It meant that we could just take our time and take pictures of our favourite fish.

We wandered through the Parque de Nações before taking the metro back home. This park, which was the location of the 1998 World Expo feels so wonderfully modern. So many interesting looking buildings and sites that kinda reminded me of Odaiba.

Dinner was further proof of the wealth of 1001 foods available in Lisbon. It was not a place that I would have normally gone in, but TripAdvisor and a pre-visit glance at the menu persuaded me that it would be worth the visit.

img_4047Food item: Suckling Pig

To help me with the ticking off (as well as ensuring he got a good meal) hub went for the sucking pig. It was a mountain of pork like I had not expected for 11€. In the UK you would probably have to pay 2-3 times that.

Now, on one level I disagree with the concept of sucking pig wholeheartedly, but my god was this good. So very tender they it just collapsed off of the bone. Also, as pork goes, it was a sweet meat. This is a good thing.

img_4048Food item: Black Scabbard Fish

So, the waiter tried to warn me off this. Like he actually told me what this fish looked like and that it basically wasn’t a normal fish. I got a “don’t complain if you don’t like it”

I did not complain. I adored this. It was some of the best fish I have ever had and I can’t think of what I’d compare it too. Perhaps eel would be closest, just not as oily. It was very close textured and slightly salty.

I would have this again. And might do if we find it in another place. Or just visit this place again. Usually a no no for me on holiday, but there are a lot of other things I want from this menu.

img_4049Food item: Guarana
Progress: 585/751

This was not the end of the food items today. Oh no. We actually managed to pick up some Brazilian guarana soda on the way home! I hadn’t really thought about it , but it makes sense that you could get some Brazilian things here. It tastes like a refreshing tropical berry that’s like a nicer version of Red Bull. That’s about it, I have no other touchstones for this..

So that’s today. This may be one of the longest blog posts I have written for a good while. Time for bed so I can be up early tomorrow for our trip to Sintra!