A Bite of Barcelona

I went for a minibreak in Barcelona earlier this month, and wow, the food alone was a good enough reason for visiting. It never went wrong.

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I had booked an impulse holiday after being curled up under my duvet, tired after work, feeling sorry for myself. I didn’t even know why I picked Barcelona. I hadn’t planned on visiting, and on checking the weather forecast before we left, I was disappointed to see that rain, rain, and more rain were looking likely.

However, things were looking up as the plane pulled into Barcelona airport to blue and sunny skies. A balmy 25˚C, the beach was thronged with the tanned and happily wearing shorts instead of coats.

We started out with the best burgers you could have imagined, they even rivalled my London fave Patty and Bun. Not very Spanish, but cheap and cheerful, and oh so dirty.

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Then a trip to the famous La Boqueria market, full of possibly everything you could ever imagine eating, as well as a lot you possibly never could!

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Then the finale to the trip was the most memorable meal at La Estrella, a nondescript bistro serving the most beautifully cooked plates of food, all made with seasonal and local ingredients. DSC_0980The calamari was perfectly cooked, and not in the slightest bit chewy as can sometimes be the risk.

DSC_0984The duck dish was fabulous – the contrast in textures and flavours was spot on. Then a classic dessert to finish, a tarte tatin, beautifully caramelised apples in a sea of cream. 
DSC_0987Then in between all this, plenty of meandering through the streets of the old town, munching on chocolate-filled xuxo, a delicious doughnut-like confection. We found some time to fit in a bit of culture too – visiting La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece, which was truly stunning to behold, then the Picasso museum and the museum exhibiting the history of ancient Barcelona.
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The only disappointment on this trip was the hotel I booked. I found a deal online, and rashly booked it without consulting the previous reviews. Let’s say it offered great views of Barcelona, but not much else.

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So for a short holiday away,to get the tastebuds tingling and the mind refreshed, this was a trip that did not fail to impress.

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The Algarve, Portugal

My holiday decisions always seem to be a bit hit or miss, from the disappointment that was Naples, to the utter joyful seclusion of the Sardinian beaches.

The Algarve was in many ways pleasant but nothing to write home about. The nicest beaches were packed to overcrowding, and the quieter ones had seas that were too choppy for a relaxing swim, or a scarily strong undertow that made me a little nervous about stepping in.

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There wasn’t a lot in the way of cultural sights to see. Here is a destination where the predominant attractions really are sun, sea and sand. Maybe storks too 🙂

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There were storks everywhere, nesting on the most unlikely of tall structures. From random stumps in the middle of derelict construction work, to electricity pylons, to the roofs of petrol stations, these birds certainly weren’t afraid of heights.

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Quaint cobbled streets with brightly painted whitewashed houses were actually rather a rarity. Look a little closer and they have names like Gingerbread Cottage – housing retired British expats of course. 

I guess that’s one of the reasons I didn’t feel drawn to the Algarve. It was hot, sunny and there were beaches galore, but I never got the feeling of really getting away from the UK. It surrounded me everywhere – from the tourists en masse, to the road signs and hotel signs, shops…it was almost surreal, and not in a very good way.

Escaping to the West provided some respite from the commercialism and built-up surroundings. Less child-friendly, fewer nightclubs…here the simpler, plainer beauty of the coastline is allowed to shine, and the tourist vibe a casual, relaxed surfer-based one. There are already signs of development creeping into the western coastline too, so perhaps this won’t last for long.

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I don’t tend to think too much about the way tourism affects the local character of a holiday destination. Usually, both find a way to work pretty harmoniously. In some ways, tourism helps preserve some local customs, cultures and traditions, albeit in a somewhat sanitised, showy way.

Sadly, in the Algarve, tourism seems to be the monster that ate and ate and ate. It feels like the coastline is no more than an endless chain of purpose-built resorts, imported-sand beaches, cheap drinks and night-life. For sure it generates jobs, and provides economic growth for a previously poor area, but what a shame it has to be at the expense of what was once a very beautiful coastline.

No Sardines in Sardinia

When we came back from Naples, A and I had uneasy thoughts about our next trip to Italy. Naples had been a shock to the system, grimy, gritty, hard to love. Would Sardinia be the same?

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At first, we weren’t sure. Rolling our suitcase out of Alghero’s tiny airport, we headed for the car rental stall, only to see a group of angry Germans arguing furiously with a group of 5 sunglasses-clad deeply bronzed Italians manning the desk. It took all 5 of them to sort out one car for this increasingly irate man.

Thankfully, our own car hire was a smooth, relatively uneventful process. The Ford Fiesta was a step up from the car I had originally picked, and soon we were driving out of the airport, deep into the midst of olive groves, green hills, the roads lined with poppies and other wildflowers. Blue skies ahead, I felt utterly content.

The hotel too was a dream, surrounded by gloriously green countryside. I completely fell in love with the swimming pool, and A was rather bemused at how much time I spent floating about in it. 

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With huddles of sheep in the distance, and the trill of birdsong in the air, tortoises crawling across the road, you just couldn’t get further away from the busy urban life of work, London and commuting.

I’m not sure I remember doing much in the way of tourist attractions apart from exploring some of Sardinia’s nuraghe, stone towers that are the last remnants of an ancient civilisation. So much more interesting than Stonehenge, and dotted just about everywhere.

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The rest of the short holiday was naturally spent happily doing laps in the gorgeous hotel swimming pool, or sunning myself on a virtually empty beach, hills dotted with purple blooms of wild orchids rising into the background.

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It was just simply perfect. Not to mention the fresh seafood, grilled on the beach, and served up with a fresh tablecloth, napkins, and squeeze of lemon, because fish and chips has a totally different meaning Italian-style.

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When all you want is a little R n’ R, I cannot recommend Sardinia highly enough. It was a perfect holiday destination, and I can’t wait to go back.

A Break in Budapest

I was desperate to get out of the country for a bit, so jumped at the opportunity when cheap tickets to Budapest popped up on the Internet.

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I have oddly low expectations of Eastern European cities. For some reason, I expect all former Soviet countries to exude Spartan greyness in the form of monolithic concrete tower blocks, stars and sickles plastered over every surface and statues of Lenin looking into the distance. Perhaps it’s indoctrination at school, who knows?

So anyway, I was pleasantly surprised when the plane glided into an astonishingly modern terminal building. Central Budapest is a gorgeous confection of former Austro-Hungarian splendour, and there’s plenty in the way of architectural delights to admire.

The main highlights of the trip were the House of Terror, Hospital in the Rock, and the Holocaust Memorial Centre. Hungary had a turbulent 20th century, and you can’t help but feel that nobody really escaped suffering through it.

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Then after all those sobering reminders of human atrocity, it’s nice to think about the more glamorous aspects of Hungary’s past by having a coffee and slice of cake in one of it’s fancier establishments. Not it to mention that everything in Budapest is so cheap by UK standards you can afford to go fancy not just once, but basically every day!

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Everyone talks about the New York Cafe being the place to go hang out, but despite its glitzy interior, I didn’t think it really lived up to the hype.

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I likes Hotel Gellert better but my favourite place was Ruzwurm, a quaint establishment that sits in one of the most picturesque parts of Budapest in the Castle Hill district. You can see it’s incredibly popular and they serve the most wonderful hot chocolate and delicious homemade cakes.

Then naturally, being as food-centric as I am, of course I had to pay a trip to the big food market, where I picked up a souvenir sausage to take back for A. The other food there was fairly underwhelming, cakes had rubbery over-gelatinised fillings and the strudels were soggy.

Other highlights of the trip included the Ethnographic museum which had a fascinating exhibition on Hungarian Jews and is situated in one of the most beautiful buildings in Budapest.

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I was pretty orney about spending all my forints so on the last day, determined I had to use them all up, via a trip up the funicular railway, a really enormous Hungarian chimney cake, and some bacon-flavoured crackers. I’m proud to say that I managed it too! Lovely as Budapest was, I’m not likely to make another trip there soon, so it seemed unnecessary to have lots of spare forints rolling around the place, especially as everything there was so gloriously inexpensive.

Nomming Through Naples

“See Naples and die.”

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Thus goes the saying, referring to a time when Naples was so beautiful you had to see it in your lifetime. These days? Well, I travelled to Naples this Autumn, and I can’t help thinking the saying takes on a whole new meaning.

Naples has a pretty unsavoury reputation. Before my visit, I’d heard stories about the strong mafia presence, heavy crime levels and piles of refuse heaping the streets. As soon as we exited the airport, it looked like the rumours were true. An angry taxi driver gesticulated and shouted at quaking young tourist. The mêlée of screeching crowds vying with zigzagging mopeds in the dirty, graffiti-plastered historic centre was both dismayingly loud and claustrophobic.

So it’s not an inviting city, that’s fair to say. The historical centre, with its narrow almost derelict houses and swathes of laundry, almost feels like a step back into the middle ages. People fling buckets of dirty water out into the street, household refuse piles up in unsuspecting corners, and vagrants paw through the communual rubbish bins. By day, there is a certain charm about some of the streets, peddling their wares of nativity scenes, red horns to protect against the evil eye, gelato, and local specialities. By night, the poorly lit alleyways are menacing rather than exciting.

We did try our hardest to explore Naples, and behind its grimy coating, the city does offer some bright, albeit well-hidden gems. Traditional taverna Cantina del Gallo was the best place we ate at. We arrived at the doorway, only to be warmly welcomed by the owner and tempted with plate after plate of delicious nibbles.

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The arancini were delicious, as were as the mini pizzettes and the croquetes. The pizzas you could watch being made in the open plan kitchen and they came generously topped and full of fresh flavours.

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For the home of pizza we tried out a fair few. Neopolitan favourite Gino Sorbillo also do a roaring trade in traditional stonebaked pizzas. You won’t get good customer service, but you will get a very very tasty pizza. Go early or be prepared to queue for a very, very long time.

For the sweeter-toothed, Pastisserie S. Caparelli did the best sfogliatella, delicious ricotta filled pastries, and you got them with a smile too, which was a bonus.

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Gay Odin do very tasty fruit sorbets, gelato and the Italian classic, torrone morbido. I’m going to try and make some of this soft, almost truffley torrone soon once I find a workable recipe.

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There aren’t a lot of exciting attractions to see in Naples otherwise. The archeological museum is worth a glimpse for the stunning mosaics and rude roman paraphenalia, but often the good exhibits are shut due to staff shortages. The Capella Sansevero is worth a visit due for the beautiful sculptures and anatomical machines. Italy has a wealth of beautiful churches, and I guess once you’ve seen a few, there’s only so much you can gasp in awe.

I imagine most travellers use Naples as a pit stop for the Almalfi coastline (where we didn’t go, sob) or the sights of Pompeii. It’s probably quite harsh of me to say so, but I certainly wouldn’t regard Naples as a place to return to again. There are a few goodies, but it’s not enough to entice me back.

Deliciousness in Dubrovnik

After all that hard slog, it was time for a break. I went away for a blissful few days, involving plenty of sunshine, glistening blue seas, and delicious seafood…may gratuitous shots of food commence!

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Evenings spent beside the Old Town Harbour, eating our bodyweight in seafood, and hungry stray cats lingering for nibbles.

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A trip to the Elaphite Islands brought even more beauty.

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And of course, even more deliciousness. There is such a wealth of fresh seafood in Croatia. It’s cooked and dressed simply, and tastes gorgeous.

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After all that eating, we did a little exercise too. A short hike up Mount Srd rewards you with stunning views across the whole city.

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Dubrovnik is used as a location for a lot of scenes in the Game of Thrones TV series, so some of the places look oddly familiar. I’m not a big fan of Game of Thrones myself, but it is always a novelty to see places on the screen in their reality.

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And then after all that, a little more food was needed. Seafood, naturally! I got a telling off by the restaurant proprietor – I think he thought I was trying to eat my meal with my hands instead of cutlery – but how else are you supposed to peel a prawn?

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By Day five, we were really craving meat, and this meat platter from Taj Mahal (which confusingly, is actually a restaurant serving Bosnian cuisine) ticked all the boxes.

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Some more hairy incidents involving a trip to hospital and my car losing some of its front parts happened along the way too, but I’ll try and focus less on the downers, which always inevitably happen when you least want them to. I can confidently say that should you need medical care in Dubrovnik, you won’t be waiting anywhere near as long as you would be in an A&E department here in the UK!

I never end up buying much in the way of souvenirs on holiday, but I did come back with many packets of hazelnut wafers. You can find them all over continental Europe, but rarely, Pink Wafers aside, in the UK. Anyone know why? I’d love to see more of them in the biscuit aisles.

And now, back home, I’ve got the travel bug again. I can’t wait to get planning my next trip away!

Gran Canaria

I needed a bit of a break from drizzly grey skies, and cold dark mornings, so off I went for a sunny week in the Canaries. Only once the plane landed, I realised that my hopes for perfect weather might not be completely fulfilled – it was windy, and yes, there was a little bit of rain. Looking back, all my photos seem to be permeated with the gentle shades of softened sunlight, so perhaps there was less rain than I initially thought.

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I certainly returned home with the tan to prove that I did catch plenty of sunshine, especially hiking outdoors in the mountains.

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I feel like I’ve really seen a side to Gran Canaria that most tourists don’t realise exist. There is a true joy from wandering  though miles of orange, almond and olive groves. Then the mad scramble past indigenous cave houses perched against steep inaccessible cliffs of fiery red rock scattered sparsely with prickly vegetation.

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I wish I had more photos although my camera really can’t do the spectacular (or sometimes, downright odd) scenery justice.

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Lost in the heights there was a wonderful sense of peace. If you stopped and were still – all that could be heard was the soft rustle of trees, and faraway birdsong; and far away in the distance, the dormat peak of Mount Teide.

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On a slightly aside note: for foodie followers – don’t expect to have your tastebuds tickled anything fancy. I spent my week eating mostly sandwiches and salad. If you’re feeling brave, the prickly pear fruits are edible, but I confess I never got round to trying one.

Brasserie Vlaming, Amsterdam

The Netherlands isn’t really internationally renown for the quality of its good food, but during my time there I was thoroughly impressed. On the recommendation of one of my travelling companions, we popped into a nearby underfloor restaurant for a spot of dinner. The atmosphere is great from the moment you step inside – the tables are arranged to give the diners a sense of privacy and at the same time, it’s incredibly friendly and sociable.

The cheerful, chatty waitress joked with us as we placed our orders, and we got to watch everything being cooked up behind a counter where the chefs were working away in the kitchen area.

I can’t help thinking that the quality of bread is a great precursor for what the food will be like. So when a huge quantity of delicious warm crusty bread came over to our table with a fantastic herb sauce for spreading, I had high hopes for the rest.

My main was heavenly. An island of crispy salmon fillet, surrounded by a sea of hollandaise sauce. Possibly the best salmon I had ever eaten. We had fries on the side with mayonnaise – standard fare, but yummy. I didn’t take any pictures, so I borrowed one from my friend A, whose photography skills far surpass my own.

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For dessert, a pear and cherry crumble topped with a spoonful of ice-cream. This was almost too sweet for me, but I am notoriously picky when it comes to desserts. I would have preferred fresh cherries without syrup, but the crumble topping was superb.

We wandered out of Brasserie Vlaming full and content, and I would certainly return there again if I am in Amsterdam in the near future!

Frolicking in France

In France, I’ve been soaking up the heat. There has been wandering through quaint villages, clambering up mountains, and splashing about in rivers and lakes. All rather fabulous, except when it comes down to the eating. France’s foodie reputation is renown, so I guess it’s a tall pedestal to fall down from.

In rural France, the idyll of locally made, high quality produce seems to be hard to find. From my local boulangerie selling only mass-produced and stale baguettes, and the village market flogging peaches at €6/kg; it isn’t hard to see why local people prefer the nearest hypermarket.

I do like French hypermarkets, I have to add. There’s something terribly exciting about finding absolutely everything under one roof, and the quality of fresh fruit and vegetables there beats Tesco hands down.

Anyway, during my holiday I finally found a gem of a patisserie, predictably in an urban, rather than rural locality.

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Four delectable tarts. Tarte aux pommes, tarte aux noix, tarte au chocolat and tarte aux fraises. Apple, mixed nuts, chocolate, strawberry. Look at that perfect mirror of glaçage on the chocolate tart! The insides were perfect as well, with a meltingly rich ganache centre. My other favourite was the strawberry tart, sweet glazed strawberries on a bed of crème pâtisserie and a sprinkling of pistachio on top – delicious!

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It really made me want to bake. The French heat along with the tiny rented kitchen deterred me. I came back buzzing with ideas, so I guess I will still be whipping up plenty of French confections in the coming months!

What made me really happy was knowing that despite not having chocolate glaçage, glazing and other fancy patisserie skills, it’s actually quite easy to create a tart which delivers a similar flavour hit.  So if you can’t head out to your nearest French patisserie, I dare say you can make something just as good-tasting at home!

How fab is that?

Farewell, and Next Time

I’ve been wowed and wooed by this Southern continent, and in some cases, truly wonderstruck. I’m going to miss my time here, but now it’s time to click my red glittery shoes (à la Dorothy), and return back home to rain and reality.

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On my last couple of days, the weather took a turn for the worse, and I decided to chillax, do a spot of baking, send off my postcards, and round up some souvenirs to take back home.

I have limited kitchen resources at my disposal here, so I decided to stick with two simple but delicious recipes – flapjacks, and a yoghurt cake. The flapjacks were modified by replacing golden syrup with strawberry jam, and they turned out perfectly! The yoghurt cake was a little more tricky as I had to use a very large baking pan, but in the end – minus a few burnt bits, it was pretty delectable too. Given the difficulties of navigating around a strange oven, I’m simply pleased that they turned out edible at all!

With souvenirs, I decided to stick with the sweet and simple. I confess I didn’t want to lump my nearest and dearest with jars of Vegemite, and Ugg boots in the fashion world are now a bit passé.

So I’ve stuck with the sweet and simple. A jar of local blue gum honey, some cute kangaroo keyrings. Australian-made sheepskins. And from New Zealand, some beautifully eye-catching opalescent paua shells.

I’ve also been left with a couple of unexpected souvenirs. My legs are decorated with a mosaic of scars following aggressive insect bites, which should hopefully fade away before too long!

My travels have left me with a burning desire and wanderlust to explore so many other places, and I intend to do so (once time and money become available). I also intend to bring with me some salient learning points to maximise those fun times whilst travelling abroad.

  1. Shop around for good hostels. For example, don’t always stick to YHA hostels – although they do tend to have good baseline levels of cleanliness and separate gender dorms – they can also end up being the most expensive option. Check reviews online. Smaller hostels tend to have the best atmosphere and are a great way to meet like-minded people.
  2. Likewise, organise some trips through the hostel. Choose small groups as that is also a good way of getting to know your fellow travellers and have some stress-free fun!
  3. Go for dorms that sleep 4-6. Get friendly with your dorm mates as you might end up hanging out with them!
  4. Use the hostel kitchens as this is a really good way of striking up a conversation.
  5. Don’t be shy. Start up conversations with your fellow travellers, say yes to invitations, leap into the water without being coaxed, and wear your bikini without fear!