Archives for the month of: September, 2011

We discovered what may be the most enjoyable way to travel as we were heading from Barcelona to Granada, Spain. Night trains are usually available for longer journeys and in our case, we found one but all of the regular seats were booked in advance. We chose the last remaining option which was a room in the TrenHotel. The cost was double, but we got our own room with beds, a closet and sink! To top it all off, we had access to the dining car of the train, had cold beverages in the evening and breakfast early in the morning watching the Spanish countryside fly by. This is as close to the Polar Express as we’ve been. So much fun! Neither of us were terribly excited when our 9 hour train ride came to an end.

Granada was a connection to our final destination of Nerja, Spain. We’ve read great things about Nerja and checked into a hostal in the center of town. Nerja is situated right on the Mediterranean coast and is best known for it’s beaches and famous views from the “Balcon de Europa”, a vantage point and one time defensive tower in the center of town. After so much moving around, this was the perfect place to settle in for a while.

The beaches here are great, with sand like fine gravel in most places. The water is clear when not windy. The wind however, brings out kite surfers which is always amazing to witness. Some of our favorite beaches back right up to cliffs and Nerja has plenty of these.

One cultural experience we’ve thoroughly enjoyed here occurs at Ayo’s. Ayo has been making paella for over 30 years under a grape vine covered trellis right on the beach. It’s all you can eat for 6 Euros. He prepares the paella in giant cast iron pans and feeds hundreds of people everyday. This is quite amazing to witness. The sangria ain’t so bad either!

Nerja also backs right up to a beautiful section of the Sierra Nevada mountains which can be hiked to from the center of town. We enjoyed the concept of having both beaches and mountains so close and decided to drop by a real estate office and inquire about a monthly apartment rental. After a little searching, we found an amazing top floor apartment with wrap around balconies facing both the mountains and the beach! Sunrise from the mountainside balcony, sunsets from the seaside balcony. And this time, we have a full kitchen! We went ahead and paid rent for 3 weeks and did a dance in honor of our good fortune. Abby does a wicked “Walk like an Egyptian” while I cut air splits.

Nerja has since been a dream.

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Way back in 2006, Abby was living and working for an Architect in Barcelona right around the time I was finishing up school in Prague. Having already been to Prague together, we were both eager to get back to her old stomping grounds. Upon our long and overdue arrival at the port, we were greeted with a beautiful view of the entire city.

Barcelona is one of the great cities of the world and commanded our attention immediately. The first thing to strike us was the importance the city planners place on pedestrian travel. There is no need for a car in Barcelona. A moped, maybe. Bikes, rollerblades, longboard skateboards – most definitely! In fact, we found this place to be one giant playground for pedestrian travelers.

One way they accomplish this is beginning with a well laid out metro system. Most developed cities have these, but Barcelona has gone much further by concealing the automobile traffic by introducing wide walkways in the middle of the streets or hiding the car traffic altogether by sending it underground. This allows for trees to be planted everywhere. The result is so peaceful and certainly not what one expects from a big city. Car traffic while existent, seems to disappear. This effect cannot be overstated and all cities should adopt this principle of pedestrians first. Barcelona is an enormous city that feels like a park. I’m no city boy, but this is the first one I’d be happy to live in. We both would!

We stayed in a residential district and avoided many of the tourist spots to get a better feel of the city. (both of us had seen the main sites anyway) During our first night as we were walking home from dinner, we discovered the “La Festa de Gracia” in full effect in the neighborhoods. This is an annual tradition that brings different streets together and they decorate like you wouldn’t believe! At the culmination of the week, they have a big dinner for each street where all of the families come together at one table. Man o man, the decorations! Unbelievable creativity. Notice how they’re all made with recyclable materials.

The second night, we lucked out big time and scored some tickets to the Barcelona/Naples futbol match. A few things should be mentioned here. Abby and I both have been to many a sporting event, but nothing like this. The city descends upon their enormous stadium in force and by foot (no parking lots to speak of). Big deal, right? Well it creates a certain feeling as you head into the stadium and definitely when you leave that the city is truly coming together for something. The excitement surrounds the game before it even begins and well after it ends. Another thing is the game itself. Watching a futbol match in Barlenona is watching a nation’s greatest athletes at play. They have one sport and it’s easy to see why. I’ll be the first to say we have nothing like this back home and I’ve never been a big fan of soccer, until now. In fact, we anxiously watched every second of a 5-0 blowout just waiting for the next series of moves between the players. Messi (their star player and considered one of the best in the world) scored 2 goals and 1 assist in the first 20 minutes he was in. He may as well be the president of Barcelona. This event was awesome and definitely one of the highlights of our entire trip!

Speaking of trip, at this point our good friend reality has begun to settle in. The trip funds are drawing to a close and we are trying to figure out how to stretch every dollar as far as we can. Hmm.

Barcelona, we absolutely love you and will be back one day. For now, we must move on to less expensive pastures. To help, we found Rick Steves again in a book store. This one is on Spain and he’s got some great recommendations all along the Costa del Sol. Time to hop another train down south to Granada. This one’s an overnight train! Woohoo!

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What comes to mind when one thinks of Genoa? The birth place of Pesto, perhaps? I’m sure I’ve heard of it in a few movies. Didn’t Anthony Hopkins play “Hannibal Lecter” in Genoa? I could be wrong. The point is that the name registers some sort of importance in the recesses of our minds.

After arriving at the train station and searching for a reasonably affordable hotel, we found one. Yikes. In Genoa, prepare yourself to pay double for a scary hotel on the port side of town or triple for a decent stay on the nice side of town (we discovered this truth much too late). If ever arriving or departing from the port of Genoa, prepare yourselves. The port side of town is an urban planned nightmare. This city is sketchy at best, the dangerous kind where we didn’t go out at night for the certainty of getting mugged. One night only, then were off to Barcelona please. But wait, let’s not chalk it up just yet.

The next day, we were taking an 18 hour ferry from Genoa to Barcelona at 6pm and had some time to kill. We decided there must be a nice part of Genoa and set out for a few hours to find it. We are glad we did. It turns out there are two sides of this city, possibly even more. For certain, the Port area is trouble. We found the main shopping streets and residential district, which were quite nice. The two best things about this city that we found were a hidden labyrinth of a market and an incredible pesto pizza!

The market would be a second home for any chef. Enormous wheels of cheese for sale at the cheese vendor, spices, vegetables, breads, meats, wines, you name it. We were most taken with the fresh pasta kitchen (which was packed with locals). They had an assembly line making fresh pasta, rolling it out, stuffing them and selling by the kilo. Incredible. Imagine the possibilities of having that right next door..

We also found a cafeteria style restaurant nearby with all homemade ingredients. We enjoyed a stuffed pesto pizza that was the best of entire trip! That stuff was amazing. A moment of soap box please. We’ll both preach it from here on out, fresh ingredients makes the world a better place. Maybe we just appreciate Italy so much because as Americans, we don’t have a clue about this notion. It’s only pizza right? Papa Johns is all about this notion. I even think I heard him say that once. Honestly, we may as well have never had pizza before. It’s that different. And yet, the difference is so simple.

After walking around for a bit and meandering down some beautiful alleyways lined with all kinds of stores (most closed for the holiday), we headed back to the port to catch our ride to Spain. It was going to be a long one. Rough life though, heading to Barcelona. We know.

Genoa, a city that for us personifies Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Great pesto. You make us want to find a kitchen and get a cooking. But first, get us outta this port!

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We were determined to find an apartment in the Cinque Terre. Everything was booked online and the few remaining rooms were outrageously priced. However with a group of towns this small, it is always possible to find that right person that doesn’t have Internet but they have an open space for rent. We went for it. After searching through one town and half of another, we were blessed with far more than we imagined!

In Vernazza, we were ringing all the doors with rooms to let and they were all booked. One man knew of an opening and an older Italian lady came out and brought us up several flights of stairs and right into the perfect place. We were in the middle of Old Town Vernazza, a short stroll from everything, and had a 1 bedroom apartment with exposed beams in the ceiling for 4 nights!

The lure of the Cinque Terre (the 5 lands) has grown over the years. These towns were all built by hand within the cliffs of the Italian Riviera. They were originally built here for defensive purposes and linked together by one long, beautiful hiking trail. Along the trails, the farmers have developed a unique way of growing grapes and lemons along the cliffs. The grapes of course are for wine, while the lemons are used to produce a local liquor called “Limoncino”. The latter we discovered, is perfectly paired with dark chocolate to make one incredible aperitif. Should anyone be interested, we have a Cinque Terre recipe for this Limoncino and plan on making some once back in Charleston. And lest we forget, this is so close to the birthplace of Pesto! We both could tell an amazing difference in the quality here and there’s nothing quite like it. Stopping into just about any shop will put you in a bind deciding which farmer’s home made pesto to try that night. Again, we have another recipe for Pesto should anyone be interested.

A typical day here was spent waking up to coffee and breakfast before setting out on one of the hikes between the towns. Lunch might be found along the hike or within one of the towns themselves. After a hike, we would find a cafe with a cliff or beachside view, order a drink and settle into yet another book. (that’s right, Abby’s now reading fiction) Then we’d catch the next train, as no cars are allowed in the Cinque Terre, and head back to Vernazza. Walking down the streets back home, we’d dream up dinner just by seeing what’s available that night. One of our favorite moments would be right after showering, heading out from our apartment to the main street in search of a Fococciaria or Pizza shop. We would place an order and watch them prepare everything while entertaining the locals and tourists alike. This was an incredible experience. By not sitting down in the restaurant, we were able to stand right next to the kitchen and watch how the locals interacted and cooked with one another. There’s something about Italians and how passionate they are about good food. It’s inspiring at the very least.

We’d walk right back to our apartment and settle in with dinner consisting of pizza or pasta, some fresh pesto, foccacia, a local wine (red or white) and of course Limoncino! It was always in the freezer waiting next to some dark chocolate. It’s the little things in life that get us excited these days.

The Cinque Terre is an unforgettable place. Time seems to slow down to a crawl and you get the sense that it’s always been this way here. Was it only four days we were here? Could’ve been a month or a day and it wouldn’t matter. This place will always be at the top of our list for return trips. Just sayin.

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Leaving Croatia would have been much more difficult had we not been heading to Italy. While we loved just about everything we experienced in Croatia, the Italian culture and cuisine is reason enough to cross the Atlantic. We booked an 8 hour ferry from Dubrovnik to Bari, considering it a staging point for our move West, across Italy, with the goal of ultimately reaching the Amalfi Coast. As it turned out, that wasn’t in the cards.

Much of the enjoyment of the way we love to travel comes from where we lay our heads at night. We’ve discovered that even the most basic online accommodations in Italy during the month of August are well outside of our budget or just plain booked altogether. The interesting thing we didn’t plan on is the phenomenon of the Italian “holiday”. Everyone in the major cities flocks to the beaches, leaving the cities deserted and the beaches absolutely packed. Upon discovering this, we determined to change our course and head North up the East coast with the destination of the Cinque Terre.

Bari was a ghost town for the most part. However the second night we were there, we had an unforgettable experience. In typical fashion, we TripAdvised the best restaurants in town and sought one out nearby. Of course, it was closed – but there was another place on the way that happened to be full of local families. (10-12 person tables) We sat down, the waitress came by and spoke not one word of English. We tried our best to order from the menu as people gathered around to hear the “Americans”. (mind you, we were far from the tourist part of a non-touristy city) A young girl stepped forward and understood some of what we were saying and communicated to the waiter that we wanted them to surprise us.

10 completely different courses proceeded to come to our table! It seemed like a joke, but we realized other tables were receiving the same treatment. The dishes varied from bruschetta, pork, fish, chicken, meats, vegetables, pizza and cheeses. All ranged from good to very good with one exception; the plate with three types of Mozzarela de Buffala. This assortment of cheeses deserves a book to be written in it’s honor. One of them, the last we tried, was round in shape and fell apart when sliced – more like a cream. This may well have been the best food Abby and I have ever tasted! We were completely stuffed and couldn’t get enough! The Italians love their food and talk so much about fresh ingredients (yes, we’ve been podcasting Rick Steve again and heard some chefs discussing this). We both are now complete believers. I don’t think you can find this kind of cheese in the States, though we will try. Bari, is it possibly more than a transportation hub? Perhaps, but not worth too much of our trip.

From Bari we determined the best route for the Italian Riviera was North via an 8 hour train ride through Bologna. What we soon found out is that Bologna is known as “The food capital of Italy” – quite promising.

I should interject here and note that our backpacks are quite heavy at this point in the trip and we are beginning to love the days we don’t have to carry them all over a city. Love the days.

Bologna, sadly, was another ghost town. We checked into our hotel for 2 nights and walked the old town which is ancient. Apparently Bologna is home to the oldest university in all of Europe and is normally teeming with students. We found one good restaurant open for lunch one day and had some really good pasta, though not so good as to be deserving of their proclaimed title. This is in our opinion of course, and it should be noted that options were very limited. We did have one incredible experience here though, in the form of gelato! We found a place that was ranked #3 out of some 250 restaurants in Bologna. This “restaurant” serves only gelato, and yes it’s that good! If we ever have the notion to start a Gelato shop in Charleston, this is the place we will model it after. Imagine Willy Wonka’s Oompa Loompa’s in the back, working away on the most perfect ice-cream you can imagine. That was the feel of the place and it delivered!

We didn’t feel that we got the true sense of Bologna, though we did enjoy it. There are so many shops along the arched covered streets, it could very well be a Paris or Milan when it is truly open for business. If ever this way any time other than August, we suggest it’s worth the stop.

The picture below shows the mozzarella dish noted above. It didn’t look like much then, nor does it now, but have mercy!

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