Sunday, July 31, 2011

Eurotrip2011: Day 29


Today's journey commenced with two short metro trips into the centre of Porto. The train system was surprisingly clean and easy to navigate. Once in the city centre, I was again struck by the dilapidation of parts the city. Porto undoubtedly oozes with atmosphere and culture, but many residences could have really done with a few coats of paint and a little TLC. I'm not sure whether this is a recent phenomenon brought on by broader economic issues or a longstanding issue. Nonetheless, it was something that I was not expecting and clouded my initial impressions of the city (thankfully these were soon to change!).

We set off on foot to explore the narrow and often steep alleys of the city.

After a fair bit of huffing and puffing, we found ourselves at quite an altitude with a sensational view of the city below.

On our descent, we visited a couple of churches and I was thrilled to find a shop containing the creations of a number local artists. (A quick aside: I was very pleasantly surprised by some of the creative and affordable locally made art and craft throughout Portugal.) I was particularly taken with a young jewellery designer's work - a combination of colourful plexiglass and silver jewellery. Three pairs of earrings and 30 later, we were on our way again.

We ambled along the Douro river and crossed the bridge to Gaia as we neared Porto's famed port wine "caves".

On a friend's recommendation, lunch was at Taylor's - one of the better known port wine producers internationally. The ascent to the premises is very steep (the sun beating down directly overhead at lunch time didn't help us either!). However, once at Taylor's, the brief pain was well and truly out of our minds!

For what seemed to be pretty close to "fine dining" in Portugal, Taylor's was very reasonably priced (let's face it, with the Aussie dollar what it is, and the Portuguese economy what it is, Portugal is currently extremely affordable for tourists from "down under"). Food at Taylor's was quite delicious, but clearly not memorable, as I am unable to fill you in on exactly what we ate (pictured below).

After some port tastings and the procurement of a particularly special and delicious aged drop, we were on our way drink more port of course!

Numerous places along the beautiful Douro river offer free or very reasonably priced tastings. We stopped at a few, but the highlight was Kopke, which offered a variety of chocolate and port tastings - what's not to love?! The establishment was relatively quiet during our visit and our waitress was extremely generous in her advice and in both the port and chocolate departments (consistently offering to top up both!). Here's what was initially brought to our table (for €28.80 split among four, we were blown away by the value for money - check out how full those glasses are!).

For those who are interested, the above ports (from front to back) are:

  • Kopke Fine White
  • Kopke Ruby Reserve
  • Kopke LBV 2005
  • Kopke 10 years old
  • Kopke 30 years old

Feeling...ummm...a little jovial(!), we decided to fork out €10 on one of the many Douro river cruise touts. The cruise was fairly mundane, but provided some good photo opportunities.

Back at our hotel, we opted for a simple dinner and cracked open one of our recent port purchases - why stop the party? Yum!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Eurotrip2011: Day 28

San Sebastian - Porto

Today involved driving. Muuuuuch driving! Nine hours of driving to be precise. I would probably recommend people split a San Sebastian to Porto drive, but then, if you're up for some mild torture, go for it! I exaggerate - it wasn't all bad - there were two very positive notes:

  1. rural north Spain is undoubtedly picturesque and I was struck by the landscape's diversity as we drove from east to west; and
  2. this photo is taken at a highway stop. That's right, it's not a small goods store or a deli - this, my friends, is a petrol station:

Once we had crossed the border to Portugal and found our way to Porto it took a while to find our hotel, which had only recently been constructed and was tucked away on a brand new street that had not yet made its way to maps/GPS'. Exhausted, we mustered only enough strength and energy to get ourselves to the nearest supermarket to pick up essential dinner/breakfast supplies.

My first impressions of Portugal weren't overwhelmingly positive. Though they weren't altogether negative either. The country certainly appeared to be run down in parts and suffering from the widely reported economic downturn. Having come directly from an historic and beautifully maintained part of Spain, the contrast was palpable. Thankfully, my first impressions mellowed during my stay in Porto, as I was won over by the warmth of its people, the glorious Douro river and, of course, the port!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Eurotrip2011: Day 27

San Sebastian

My beloved and I set off for a day together wandering the streets of San Sebastian after a little sleep in. The "Old Town" is just delightful and, being our first time in Spain, we simply *had* to visit some Spanish shops. San Sebastian is home to some great little independent boutiques (some of which were frighteningly pricey!), as well as all the ubiquitous Spanish chains - Zara, Camper, Desigual, Massimo Dutti etc. Basically, for a small coastal town, San Sebastian gave much pleasure to this Aussie shop-a-holic! After picking up some great basics for my beloved and I and a pair of whacky harem pants from Desigual (*love*) for me, I could sense that my beloved's energy levels were flagging and reluctantly agreed to return to our accommodation for a bite to eat and a siesta. He claims shopping exhausts him. I refuse to believe such nonsense - it's got to be a universal male excuse conspiracy? ;)

Our afternoon consisted of further exploration of the city, but unfortunately the weather had changed from this: this:

Time to change out of my summer dress!

Pintxos were on the menu for dinner. Our first stop was Ramuntxo Berri (where we had eaten lunch the day prior - Peña y Goñi 10, Donostia-San Sebastian). I adored the authenticity of this place, where miming was mandatory. My favourite plate was a simple crusty roll with perfect ham and marinated green capsicum (bottom right).

We then ventured into a more touristy area to sample the pintxos at Michelin-recommended A Fuego Negro (Calle 31 de Agosto 31, Donostia San Sebastian). The place certainly boasted a funky look and we were expecting some equally high quality eats.

Sadly, the food was disappointing and lacked real flavour. Our "dirty salad" (top left) was without any real dressing and all dishes could have really done with some additional seasoning. I would probably only recommend this place for a drink...and, oddly, to use their bathrooms - I was rather taken by the fact that cubicle walls were painted with a blackboard surface and chalk was provided to encourage patrons to "decorate". Yes, we already know I'm weird!

We finished the evening with an ice-cream (are we sensing a theme here?!) and a final stroll to our pension. San Sebastian is one seriously sensational city (alliteration FTW!) - we will certainly be back!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Eurotrip2011: Day 26

Bordeaux - San Sebastian

Our drive from Bordeaux to San Sebastian was straightforward. Likewise, finding our pension was simple. However, getting our mammoth beast of an automobile to the designated car park was a tad more complex thanks to the many one way streets of San Sebastian. Oh well, two out of three isn't so bad!

We were greeted very warmly by the hotel staff and asked about some good local lunch options. We were directed to a nearby restaurant/bar, Ramuntxo Berri (Peña y Goñi 10, Donostia-San Sebastián), with a set two-course lunch menu. Thanks to some excellent miming by the waitress we soon realised we could choose from a chicken, beef or fish main. Umm...we'll take all of the above, thanks!

Our delicious lunch consisted of an entrée and main each, beers, coffees and one dessert. The cost per head for all this? €10! Highly recommended for travellers to the region.

Bellies full, we headed into the heart of this city, Basque-ing (okay, baaaad pun!) in the day's sunlight. What an historic, beautiful place!

As we approached the famed Playa de la Concha, we were blown away by its beauty and by the buzz of people enjoying themselves. This was one of the more stunning beaches we visited in Europe and certainly the one that most reminded me of our beautiful beaches in Australia.

We spent quite some time at the beach, soaking up some late afternoon rays and watching people play paddleball. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly - a great way to rejuvenate after some long drives!

During our walk back to our pension, we couldn't resist but stop for some ice-cream. Initially we had planned to go pintxos bar hopping, but after a few beers, nibbles and games of cards, we decided to postpone until the following night.

After our first day in San Sebastian, the city quickly became (and remains) a "must return" destination for my beloved and I.

ACL update

Thanks for all of your encouragement and well wishes while I've been out of action. I'm pleased to report that the surgery went well (at least that's what the surgeon's telling me!). I'm still struggling a little with the pain management side of things, but feel well enough to resume blogging. It's going to be a long and, at times, painful road ahead, but I hope it'll all be worth it when I hit up the basketball court in a year or so!

Please stay tuned as I resume my EuroTrip2011 trip report - still to come:

  • San Sebastian
  • Porto
  • Lisbon
  • Albufeira
  • Seville
  • Granada
  • Rafelguaraf
  • Barcelona
  • Marseille
  • Vernazza
  • Florence
  • Lucca
  • Rome
  • The Italian Riviera
  • Kuala Lumpur
Hold on to your hats! 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Mid-Eurotrip update

I apologise for breaking the long string of daily EuroTrip2011 blog posts, but I feel compelled to let you all know that I will be missing in action for the next few days, as I am scheduled to have my left knee reconstructed.

For the morbid among us, feel free to read my posts on how the injury occurred and the diagnosis.

In any case, I shall be back and rearing to update you on the fabulous latter half of our holiday in a few days. Hopefully, these updates won't be written in a drug induced haze...though that could make for interesting reading! See you all on the other side of my ACL reconstruction!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Eurotrip2011: Day 25

Paris - Bordeaux

Day 25 of our travels was pretty quiet, uneventful and photo-less. If anyone's still reading, here's a quick summary of events:

  • After settling the hotel bill in the morning, we took a taxi to Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport where we were set to pick up our big brown Citroen C4 Picasso. 
  • The wait to collect the car was over one hour - I must say, I have been very disappointed in Avis France's customer service and communication to date...but that's another "unblogworthy" story!
  • My beloved was the designated driver for the six hour drive to Bordeaux (during which time we stopped twice for food, toilet breaks and a stretch).
  • The countryside between Paris and Bordeaux is delightful. I was surprised to see a lack of wineries or even distinct signage directing to wineries as we approached Bordeaux (there were only a handful). I can only assume that the illustrious vineyards of the Bordeaux region must be quite a distance from the highway. 
  • We arrived at our hotel at around 5:30pm and my beloved and I decided to stay in, as my foot had begun aching.
  • As it was a Sunday, nearly everything nearby (including supermarkets!) were closed. As such, we munched on petrol station sangas and drank tea in our room - unexciting, but it filled a hole. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Eurotrip2011: Day 24

Paris (the engagement)

My beloved and I had planned a quiet day exploring Paris together, but I had no idea what a wonderful surprise was in store for me. We set off from our hotel, delighted that the Parisien weather gods were smiling, and purchased a brioche and a chocolate croissant to share from a little local boulangerie. Rather than eat in, we took our pastries "to go" and headed to the nearby banks of the Seine River to eat and take in the view.

After breakfast had been consumed we ambled along the river banks on our way to the Louvre. My beloved kept slowing down to an awkward pace. After questioning his ostensibly unusual gait, he told me he had something to ask me....the rest, as they say, was history!

Obviously, we were both thrilled (and I was particularly taken by my gorgeous "three gold" fusion ring - it definitely suits my tastes to a tee, as I'm not one for the conventional engagement "rock"). After nearly ten years, a mortgage and two feline children together, this was a really special step in our relationship. Amusingly, as tourists and residents of Paris will know, the banks of the Seine are home to some....ummm...."interesting" smells in the morning. Shortly after popping the question, it was necessary to sprint up a steep flight of stairs to escape the stench of urine (romantic!) - something I'm sure we'll giggle about when reminiscing in years to come! Clearly these signs don't do much to deter such antisocial behaviour.

Giddy with excitement (clearly, we're still kids at heart) we continued our walk to the Louvre, now with a definite spring in our steps, where we purchased our electronic tickets and walked straight into the museum without queuing. First on our Louvre itinerary was La Joconde (the Mona Lisa for the non-Francophones). This rather diminutive piece is clearly a crowd pleaser and the room was bustling with visitors who were jostling for the prime photo opportunity.

My favourite parts of the museum were the Egyptian antiquities and the Roman sculptures.

Our morning was capped off with a low-key picnic in the Jardin des Tuileries, which adjoin the museum - one of the few public outdoor spaces in Paris where one is permitted to sit on the grass.

After enjoying our baguette in the sunshine of the gardens, we set off in the direction of the Champs Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe. What a wonderful walk (and not bad for those among us who enjoy popping into a shop...or five!).

Late in the afternoon, we took the subway back to our hotel, where we met our travel companions, announced our engagement and headed out to meet my beloved's cousin (a lovely lady, who is originally from Marseille, but has spent the last decade or so in Paris) for a dinner in the Montmatre neighbourhood. Unfortunately, I didn't take photos of what proved to be a magnificent meal at Le Petit Parisien (28 Rue de Tholoze75018 Paris). This may well have been due to the considerable quantities red wine that were imbibed (hey, you only get engaged once!). In any case, this unpretentious little gem of a restaurant is well worth a visit when in Paris - my beef cheek was moist, tender and full of flavour. 

After our meal, I did a particularly good job (well, so I thought!) of stumbling back to the hotel.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Eurotrip2011: Day 23


Our morning started with an early stroll to Notre Dame, where we met for a pre-organised bike tour of some of the lesser known parts of the city.

The tour was good fun, but unfortunately wasn't as personalised or as intimate as the tour we had enjoyed a few days prior in Amsterdam. With twelve people in the group, it simply didn't compare. Nonetheless, we saw some pretty amazing sights, some of which are pictured below.

Following the tour it was decided that we should fuel up with snails and frogs legs (when in France, right?!). 

Unfortunately, we hadn't done our research well and instead chose a restaurant en route to our hotel. This was a mistake - the place was clearly geared towards tourists and, while edible, the food was pretty average. The frogs legs in particular were overcooked and thus dry and my tuna salad (not pictured) was quite the meagre offering. 

Back at the hotel we parted with our travel companions and my beloved and I headed in the direction of Galeries Lafayette. While we found ourselves lost and asking for directions on a number of occasions, this proved to be a blessing in disguise, as we stumbled across some fantastic architecture....

...some *interesting* parking...

...and some pretty wonderful Parisien "street" crepes (with a great sport of a vendor - say cheese!).

Once at Galeries Lafayette, we were overwhelmed by the size and grandeur of the department store.  

The view from the top of the Galeries Lafayette wasn't too shabby either:

After soaking in the excellent view, we headed to that small pointy structure on the horizon - La Tour Eiffel. Well, perhaps it's not such a small structure up close. 

After a lot of queuing (even with our pre-booked tickets) we finally made it to the top of the illustrious monument. As a hater of heights and crowds, the journey up wasn't my cup of tea. It was made worse by the long queues for the elevator on every level. On a more positive note, the views were once again well and truly stunning.

It's safe to say that I preferred the structure from below, particularly as night fell. Check out those vivid shades of blue!

While waiting for our travel companions to join us below the Eiffel Tower, my beloved and I scoffed down our second crepe for the day. We then consumed another two (between us) - four in a day! Needless to say, we fell into bed well and truly stuffed! 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Eurotrip2011: Day 22

Amsterdam - Paris

After a little sleep in we headed to Amsterdam central station, where we picked up a baguette for the road and a couple of postcards (which happened to remain in my handbag for about two weeks!). Our train was slightly delayed and, once aboard, the number of passengers seemed to grow exponentially as we approached Paris. Thankfully, we managed to make it to Gare du Nord in one piece and located line four of the Metro without too much difficulty. Our "cheap and cheerful", but brilliantly located hotel was approximately one minute from Odeon station on foot and offered some pretty special views. Like this:

Our very low key afternoon consisted of a long stroll around the local area (making sure to pass a number of ice-creameries, bakeries and chocolatiers), as well as a visit to the very beautiful Jardin du Luxembourg.

After quickly returning to our hotel to freshen up, we opted to head to Sacre Coeur to watch the sun set. We thought this would be a very clever idea. So did half of Paris! The famous hill below the Basilica was overcrowded and reeked of urine - not the most pleasant ambiance when one is trying to consume dinner. Nonetheless, there were a couple of positives, such as the amazing view...

...and the entertainment. Specifically, the male pianist, who had one of the most expressive faces I've ever seen. It was a pleasure to watch him grooving along to the music he was creating.

We returned home for a relatively early night, but had an awfully fitful sleep thanks to some street performers directly below our building with an unnecessarily powerful amplification system, as well as the shrieks of late night revellers (which lasted until at least 3am). I guess that's what we get for booking a hotel in the heart of one of the most prominent global cities!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Eurotrip2011: Day 21

Amsterdam (day trip to Den Haag)

My best friend (of previous Stroopwafel fame) was insistent that if I was to travel all the way to Amsterdam I *had* to visit The Hague. As usual, she was correct - the day proved to be wonderful!

We took a tram to Amsterdam central station and then a train (for approximately one hour) to The Hague - the third largest city in the Netherlands, home to Dutch royals and politicians. We weren't there to rub shoulders with the rich and famous. Quite the opposite - instead, we went straight to this imposing, grey building.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague is a formidable institution. While it's probably not something that many tourists would typically include in their Dutch itinerary, the morning we spent witnessing the proceedings of a Congolese war crimes trial was simply unforgettable. Prior to entering the courtroom, we were asked to lock away all possessions in a designated storage area and were made to walk through metal detectors. Once inside the courtroom, a security guard gestured for us to collect an electronic translation device before sitting down behind the glass panel that divides the courtroom from its "audience". We selected the English "channel", popped on our headphones and sat mesmerized for some time. As a trained historian, with a special interest in the Second World War, I was well aware of some of the sorts of evidence we could be hearing during the trial. Thankfully (in my opinion, at least) no especially harrowing detail was recounted during the time we were in the court.

After our time at the ICC (I must say it again - highly recommended for anybody with any sort of interest in international law) our tummies were grumbling and my beloved and I ventured into the city centre towards my best friend's favourite local restaurant - It Rains Fishes. Once again, her taste was impeccable. It Rains Fishes has a fantastic array of à la carte seafood dishes to choose from and an express lunch menu, which is remarkable value for money at €26.50. For this sum, we feasted on:

  • tuna sashimi/wasabi amuse bouche;
  • lobster crème fraiche soup;
  • sea bass with potato mash and beetroot salad; and
  • *real* (finally) coffee with home made chocolate lollypops. 

Stuffed full of fishy goodness, we explored the delightful city of The Hague, even fitting in a little shopping (my sport of choice!). Interestingly, some of the best customer service I received throughout Europe was in Amsterdam and The Hague. This went against everything that our B&B owner told us when we arrived: "Dutch customer service" he joked, "that's an oxymoron". Our experience couldn't have been further from this - we found Holland to be overflowing with warm, smiling people who were only too willing to help a bunch of disoriented tourists. And again, I digress! Back to the shopping. I was particularly delighted by one particular purchase in the afternoon - a pair of chunky Italian leather boots.

After a delightful stroll around the The Hague, we returned to Amsterdam and happened to stumble upon the Sex Museum. For only 3 for entrance we couldn't resist the seedy lure of this establishment. If you enjoy a laugh and are willing to part with a few euros, I would certainly recommend visiting the museum. My highlight was the "Sex through the Ages" collection of 19th and early 20th century porn, as well as this "colourful" Chinese tea set. I wish I could break this one out at my next dinner party...

Dinner for my beloved and I was at a tapas bar not far from our B&B - Castro. Dates wrapped in bacon were a smash hit and we also enjoyed a tortilla, lamb cutlets and chilli prawns, all washed down with a local beer. What a day!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Eurotrip2011: Day 20


Our first stop on today's itinerary was the Anne Frank Museum and House. Our tickets were reserved for 9:45am and I thoroughly recommend that prospective visitors pre-book tickets as we did - the queue very quickly became frighteningly long! The museum/house was a very interesting and moving experience. With a strong personal connection to the atrocities of the Holocaust, I couldn't help but shed a tear or two while walking through this moving tribute. If anything, the experience strengthened my resolve to fight racial intolerance - something that I'm already extremely passionate about.

After the haunting and harrowing early morning experience, we headed to Pancakes Amsterdam for some much needed comfort food. I enjoyed an apple pancake topped with ginger (a great combo!) and my beloved opted for a classic - lemon and sugar. Our travel companions ordered both a sweet and savoury option.

We were handed a cute clog keyring as we left the shop (I'm a sucker for a freebie!), which inspired me to purchase some particularly crass Dutch slippers. Pretty sexy, don't you think?!?

Bellies full and tacky souvenir shopping complete, we headed to the flea market (a pretty low key affair), but not before stopping to sample a chocolate shop en route.

Next on the day's agenda was a visit to Vleminckx Sausmeesters to try their renowned fries, topped with lashings of mayo. After our patat consumption, we parted ways with our travel companions and my beloved and I spent a blissful afternoon together pottering around the city and exploring the charming cobblestone lane ways. Highlights included stumbling upon a fantastic food court... 

...the canals (oh, the canals!)...

...the beautiful tulips in the flower market...

...the free tastings at a number of cheese shops...

...and a bargain Desigual dress purchase (less than €40!).

We returned to our B&B just before dinner and headed to a nearby supermarket to pick up dips, biscuits and vegetables for dinner, to accompany the local smoked cheese we had purchased earlier in the day. At the supermarket we encountered this....ummm..."interesting" promotional poster. Sausage anyone?

A lovely low key evening followed - numerous beers were consumed, games of cards were played and the Yahtzee dice even featured.