Wednesday, August 31, 2011

KPPG at home

The Barcelona entry wraps up my travel blog. I have very much enjoyed converting our real life adventures into written word.  We hope to have the opportunity (and funds!) to do some more overseas travel in the next few years so I will likely re-enliven the blog at that time.

I hope you have enjoyed following our journey. 


boisterous and breathtaking barcelona

Our August adventures culminated in lively Barcelona. To travel from Valencia, we again took advantage of the high speed train service, this time, taking close to three hours. The additional travel time was quickly excused by the glorious scenery of the Mediterranean and beach villages to which we were treated for most of the journey.

By this stage of our four week trip, energy levels had dropped somewhat, and coupled with our leisurely downtime in Valencia, we were a little taken aback by the heaving Las Ramblas crowds which greeted us as we exited the metro tunnel. Fortunately, our accommodation was only a short walk away and once we arrived, we immediately appreciated the space, sunlight and amenities (kitchen and washing machine!) offered by the self-contained apartment we had selected - a welcome change from a hotel room. Once settled, we made a bee line for the Boqueria fresh food market on Las Ramblas to source provisions. Using our best pigeon Spanish (which had slightly improved since our arrival in Madrid), we successfully purchased some delicious produce for the next few days. A brief detour to the basement food hall in El Corte Ingles in Plaza Catalunya sorted us out in terms of non-perishable items (and also dashed Dave’s hopes of avoiding supermarkets for an entire month).

Visiting Gaudi’s major pieces of architecture was at the top of my list whilst in Barcelona so we set aside a day to take in these sights. We were left breathless by the enormity of La Sagrada Familia (which remains under construction) though after surveying the extremely long entry queue (including many World Youth Day pilgrims!), we elected to move onto two of Gaudi’s residential masterpieces, Casa Batllo and La Pedrera. The latter provided us with an extraordinary journey through a recreated apartment in period décor and a very detailed museum collection of Gaudi’s achievements. It was the museum tour which prompted us to also include a visit to Park Guell, originally designed by Gaudi for residential living and now a public art space comprising several unique pieces of his architecture. With a staircase to rival the climb up to Montmarte in Paris, Park Guell provides visitors with an exceptional view of Barcelona city and is well worth the climb!

The wonderfully long days and light nights of the European summer allowed us to take in the beach village of La Barceloneta in the evening. The water was cool and refreshing but much calmer than Australian waters – we both agreed it was more akin to swimming in a lake than the ocean. With the steady stream of food and drink vendors weaving through the crowd, there was little need for us to leave our plot of sand, so we enjoyed several hours gazing at the water, and people watching, until the sun went down at around 8pm. We were particularly amused that the drink vendors switched beverage offerings at sunset – in place of the esky full of cold beers, they now carried trays of freshly made icy mojitos to whet the palates of beachgoers. While tempted to indulge, we instead opted for a helado (gelati) at Vioko on Passage Joan di Borbas. I had been directed to this boutique chocolate shop by the Wallpaper Guide (this was about the only decent recommendation it gave - I am definitely a Lonely Planet girl) and while it seemed oddly placed among the strip of very touristy seafood restaurants, it was well worth the visit. No longer able to ignore our tightening waistbands, we shared a violet gelati which was silken in texture, delicately flavoured and coloured in the most vibrant shade of purple I’ve ever seen in an ice cream!

On the final night of our trip, we treated ourselves to an a la carte meal at a terrace restaurant overlooking one of the Gothic Quarter’s many plazas. Ordering entrée and main instead of fast-paced tapas gave us the opportunity to warmly reflect on all of the wonderful moments we had enjoyed over the past month.  We chose summery options for entree - a plate of grilled prawns and a beetroot carpaccio with rocket and goats cheese.  Mains were a more carnivorous affair with Dave ordering an old favourite - rib fillet with roast potatoes, and a champagne sauce.  I was a little more adventurous and selected a pork fillet with foie gras encased in filo pastry, with a manchego cheese souffle and sour cherry sauce.  All of the meals combined fresh ingredients in an uncomplicated way and were beautifully presented. A delicious crema catalana, the Spanish equivalent of a crème brulee, with a perfectly crackling top and ribbon like inner custard, was a particularly memorable way to end both the meal and our culinary journey through Spain.


happy snaps

For those of you not on facebook, here are the links to our photo albums for your viewing pleasure:

London, Lakes District and some Scotland

Ballater, Edinburgh and Celtic football game in Glasgow

Spain - the sights

Spain - the food!



Tuesday, August 30, 2011

viva valencia!

When we discovered that Spain’s high speed trains operate between Madrid and Valencia, we opted for this form of transport to our next destination (the decision was also partly aided by my continued fear of flying). Departing from the centre of Madrid we were delivered to the centre of Valencia in under two hours. The trip brought with it a comparative ease, and far less stress, to European air travel. Happily, train travel also imposes less hand luggage restrictions – the volume of ours was noticeably starting to increase by this stage of the trip (and I had hardly even begun to hit the Spanish shops!).

Upon arrival in seaside Valencia, we immediately noticed a slight drop in temperature and a definite absence of pilgrim crowds! A short (and cheap) cab ride to our hotel, AdHoc Valencia, was the perfect way to introduce us to this picturesque city and its circular, one way roads that envelope the old town. A feature of the town which quickly caught my attention was the wide strip of lush gardens, sports fields and public spaces that occupy the space that was once the Turia riverbed. A tour on the ubiquitous hop-on hop-off bus a lfew days later taught us that due to frequent flooding the river was redirected many years ago and now, irrigation canals operate below the riverbed gardens. The Islamic inspired architecture throughout the city was also a noticeable feature to a new visitor, particularly the two sets of enormous city gates which sit at the north and south of the old town.

On recommendation of Lonely Planet, we dined at The Ginger Loft Café on our first night in Valencia. At 9pm, we were the first diners to arrive and remained so for most of the evening. After Madrid, this initially had me concerned about our choice but my worries were quickly quashed once our cuisine arrived. It later became apparent that a lack of patrons in Valencia, particularly during August, should not be taken as a reflection on the quality of a venue, it can simply be attributed to the reduced population at this time of year. The cuisine offered at Ginger Loft is modern Spanish with a Middle Eastern influence. We firstly embarked on a selection of Spanish cured meats, olives and hommous. The variety of meats was extensively described to us by our waiter, including the part of the pig from which it was sourced and the method of curing, but unfortunately my memory has not retained all of this information. Needless to say, we devoured every morsel of this delicious starter. We then shared a salad and a plate of lamb meatballs, with bourghul. The leafy salad with roast pumpkin and toasted sunflower seeds was exceptionally fresh and served with a tangy Valencian orange dressing. This was a perfect accompaniment to the rich and flavoursome meatballs. One surprising outcome of the meal was that Dave discovered he actually likes bourghul, thereby opening up another vegetarian meal opportunity for us back home :)

The day we spent at Las Arenas, the main beach area of Valencia, was one of our favourite days in Spain. After an educational morning on the tourist bus, we hopped off at the beach to enjoy some Mediterranean sunshine. The beach was filled with very bronzed beachgoers and a smattering of those with less active melanin – I am sure there is no need to tell you which category we fell into! After Dave had satisfied an urge to dip his toes into the Mediterranean, we strolled along the strip of seaside restaurants in search of a paella lunch – Valencia prides itself as the creator of this dish which is traditionally served as a lunchtime meal. As it neared 2pm, we noticed several restaurants starting to fill up so we settled upon La Pepica. We were very pleased to be seated at a front table so that we were able to gaze at the ocean during our long, leisurely lunch. After some helpful guidance from our waiter on portion sizes, we decided on a plate of calamari and salad for starters, a seafood paella and a bottle of Albarino (white wine – the only Spanish grape which I am familiar with as it is on the menu at Ortiga in Brisbane). The entire meal was fantastic – the calamari was thick and tender with a light, crisp coating and the paella was seafood laden, delicately flavoured and served with a perfect crust. We opted to eat our paella in the more traditional way – directly out of the pan – a very convivial way of dining!

Valencia offers an extensive range of cuisine beyond paella. During our many walks through the winding, narrow streets in the proximity of our hotel, we stumbled upon two very impressive tapas bars, Soliluna and El Rull Taberna. These venues offered a selection of traditional tapas served in rustic ceramic bowls and accompanied by crusty bread with olive oil. Judging by the quality of food we devoured, I would expect anything on the menus would have delighted the tastebuds, though if forced to choose, we were particularly impressed by the baby chorizo (churichillos), marinated chicken wings (alitas de pollo) and crispy roast potatoes with salsa (patatas bravas). Both venues also mixed up some mean mojitos, sangria and Agua de Valencia. The latter is a traditional Valencian summer sangria alternative which packs a super punch!

Our culinary journey through Valencia continued with a trip to the Mercado Central, the largest fresh food market in Europe. The market is housed in an enormous pavilion with soaring decorative ceilings. The majestic building is almost deserving of a visit in itself but what was inside was the real focus of our attentions. Rows upon rows of stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, spices, cured meats, fresh seafood, wine, ore cured meats, cheese, deli items and bread lined the inside of the Mercado. Having not cooked in a few weeks by this stage of the trip and without a kitchen available to me, wandering past all the wonderfully fresh produce was near torture! I consolidated myself by remembering that come Barcelona, I would be able to unleash my cooking urges in the self-contained apartment we would be renting there.

There is no shortage of cultural offerings in Valencia and through my research I discovered that most museums and galleries offer gratis entradas (free entry) on Sundays. We took advantage of this saving and made our way to the Museo Bella Artes and Ceramics Museum for a day of air-conditioned culture. Again, the buildings themselves are magnificent, historic structures – the palace housing the Ceramics Museum was particularly impressive. We also visited the Science Museum which sits in the Turia riverbed, as part of the Arts and Sciences precinct. The buildings in this area are much more modern constructions, but still breathtaking. At night, the lighting on the buildings cleverly forms a fish skeleton sitting atop the Turia riverbed.

I discovered that shoppers are also well catered for in Valencia! For those (husbands) not so keen on this activity, Dave found the hire bikes (just like the yellow ones in Brisbane) to be a useful way to wile away the time. He managed to take in a few additional sights, and climb one of the many cathedral towers, while I engaged in some serious retail therapy.

As the gateway to the Baleariac Islands (including Ibiza), Valencia is often a stopover for partygoing travellers and locals. Dave toyed with the idea of a ferry trip to party central but we quickly discovered that in August, ferry travel and accommodation needs to be booked well in advance. After abandoning our dreams of partying like we were 22 again, on our penultimate night in Valencia we decided to see what the beach clubs had to offer. The mainland’s noctural offerings definitely did not disappoint! The Saturday night crowds were thick and full of life, but this didn’t seem to cause us any difficulty when moving between venues. Nor did we witness any of the alcohol fuelled aggression that seems to be so commonplace in Queensland entertainment precincts these days. When we pulled up stumps at 4am, the Valencian crowd was showing no signs of waning – it was clear that the majority of punters would carry through until closing time at 8am!

Valencia is an exceptionally likeable and liveable city. The 5 days we spent there immersed us in Spanish culture and lifestyle and provided us with some very fond memories, particularly of the culinary kind! I expect it may also have been the primary cause of our holiday weight gain :) If I have the opportunity to travel to Spain again, Valencia will be on the top of my list.


Sunday, August 28, 2011

madrid mania

As promised, the Spanish edition of KPPG travels has landed! It is a three part series, one for each city, here is part one on our brief stop in Madrid.

Our arrival in Madrid coincided with that of some 200,000 pilgrims for World Youth Day 2011. Combined with the searing 38 degree heat, this made finding the way to our hotel a little more challenging than we had anticipated! Dave however, was unphased and within minutes of arriving at our hotel, he was back on the road to retrieve pre-booked tickets for a bullfight and navigate his way to La Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas in the east of Madrid. Defying all odds, he made it to the bullring with a few minutes to spare. His decision to book a sombra/sol ticket (half shade/half sun) proved to be a sensible one as the sun was still up when the event finished at 9pm. He was quickly befriended by a group of locals who happily shared their esky full of beers and dried sunflower seed snacks (pipas) with him. During the bullfight, they guided him through the order of proceedings, formalities and applauding etiquette. Curiously impressed by his solo attendance and enthusiasm, they presented him with a traditional straw sombrero as a souvenir. He later described the bullfight to me as an incredibly confronting experience which he will unlikely seek to experience again. It is however, steeped in tradition and maintains a strong local following in Madrid (thought it has been banned in some Spanish cities). As one of only a handful of foreigners in the crowd, it is without doubt an “off the tourist trail” experience he will not lightly forget.

Given my previous life as a vegetarian and generally weak stomach, I opted not to attend the bullfight. Instead, I spent a few hours enjoying our very well appointed hotel room, Room Mate Alicia, overlooking Plaza Santa Ana. I can highly recommend this new chain of Spanish boutique hotels (30-40 rooms) which specialises in minimalist, “no frills” luxury in superb locations. After the modest offerings of our Edinburgh B & B, I was very appreciative of a few creature comforts :)

I won’t go heavily into the details of our nocturnal adventures as I mostly covered these off in my previous entry. I must however mention the immense popularity of terrace dining during the Spanish summer. Whether it’s on a footpath, plaza or rooftop, outdoors is the place to be, and be seen. In our evening travels, we discovered that finding a highly coveted outdoor seat can be quite difficult as once secured, they are not surrendered lightly! I was also intrigued by the fierce competition between nightclubs for weeknight patronage – even on a Monday. In some of the busy nightclub districts, it is impossible to walk more than a few steps without numerous offers of free drinks/shots. I queried with Lupe whether this attention was reserved for tourists but she assured me that was not the case. Needless to say, we took advantage of the generosity of several establishments, but did not stay much beyond our free beverage! I expect many punters adopt the approach of moving between bars offering free/discounted beverages. One has to wonder how so many venues are able to survive.

With only one full day in Madrid, tens of thousands of pilgrims on the streets, searing temperatures and late night antics, we unfortunately didn’t make it to any of the galleries or museums this time around - I did do a very comprehensive tour of them when I visited with Anna and Camille five years ago. That said, we definitely left feeling as though we received a decent dose of the Madrid lifestyle.