Budapest – Architectural River Banks and Ruin Bars

Our last couple days with the family were spent exploring Budapest or what many travelers we have met along the way consider one of the most underrated cities in Europe. The current city is actually comprised of two former cities divided by the Danube River, Buda and Pest, which were combined in 1873. With a very young culture rooted in old traditions, it was certainly a great end to our quick sprint through Eastern Europe.

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Megan at Heroes’ Square

Sites:

The architecture along the Danube River is unmatched anywhere in Europe, bosting some of the most incredible sites, especially after dark. Below are our recommendations of must see places (many on every travelers list when visiting the city).

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The largest lookout tower at Fisherman’s Bastion

Fishermans Bastion & Matthais Church – This unique terrace is a place worth visiting twice – once during the day and once in the evening. With the Matthais Church and its beautiful mosaic roof at its center, the 7 turreted lookout towers offer some of the best panoramic views of the Pest side.

Buda Castle – While we didn’t visit the museums within the Buda Castle, the surrounding area is a great place to wonder for a little while. Don’t miss the curved entrance tower and wall along the south side, complete with access to some underground tunnels.

Hungarian Parliament Building – A magnificent example of Neo-Gothic architecture, the Budapest Parliament building is the third largest Parliament building in the world with 691 rooms, 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) of stairs and standing 96 meters (315 feet) tall. Impressive at all hours of the day, but a magical sight from the Buda side at night.

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View of Parliament from the Buda Side

Gellért Hill Cave Church & Citadella – For a good climb to yet another panoramic viewpoint, head to Citadella. This park is on the southern part of the Buda side and a beautiful place to spend a sunny afternoon. On your way don’t miss the Gellert Hill Cave Church. This Grotto chapel in a hillside cave network was formerly used as a monastery & a WWII field hospital. One of the most unique churches we have visited.

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Entrance to the Cave Church

Széchenyi Thermal Baths – After a whirlwind 10 days, it was time for a little R&R and what better place than the Thermal Baths. The least expensive entrance fee offers use of a locker in the communal changing rooms (hint- the lock is linked to your wristband which you press against to lock/unlock). For a few more dollars, you can “upgrade” to a private changing room. Entrance allows access to both indoor and outdoor pools. All the pools are at different temperatures, so feel free to be indecisive!

Vajdahunyad Castle – Situated in the park nearby the baths, this castle is quite elaborate and shows the evolution of Hungarian architecture. To us, it was much more “castle like” than Buda Castle.

Restaurants:

Kispiac – This small little

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Grilled Goat Cheese

restaurant serving an ever-changing menu of seasonal dishes was by far our best meal in Budapest! We started off with grilled goat cheese served with a salad of pears and endive. Their house pickled vegetables complete with spicy peppers and green tomatoes were both interesting and delicious. For the main courses, we opted for a Majolica Pork Tenderloin served with creamed spaetzl and a pork belly rolled and baked, leaving the skin crispier than any we have ever had. Paired with a couple glasses of regional wine, this is a must go for a refreshing twist on traditional Eastern European Cuisine.

IMG_1831Central Market Hall – Ah, the Hungarian central market! This restored neo-gothic hall for traders features grocery produce on the ground & souvenirs/prepared food on the 1st floor. The highlight was a new type of Hungarian street food – a bread cone filled with two types of sausages, sauerkraut, onions, cheese sauce, ketchup & mustard.

Drum Café Budapest – This small casual spot is popular with the younger crowd however it serves tasty traditional Hungarian food at a great value.

Két Szerecsen – This lovely little café/restaurant offers a great mix of Mediterranean “tapas” and a light take on traditional Hungarian dishes. With a decent wine list and its intimidate inviting atmosphere, it’s a perfect place for a memorable meal.

Ruin bars – Occupying former dilapidated buildings and courtyards, these cool and interesting new establishments is a must visit while in Budapest. One of the largest, Szimpla Kert, does attract a younger crowd later in the evening, but it’s assortment of gardens and dozens of graffitied rooms (each with a different type of bar or food counter) is a fun experience.

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One of the MANY rooms at Szimpla Kert
  • Near-by is Gozsdu Udvar, a beautifully restored passageway and courtyard, once the core of Budapest’s Jewish quarter, packed with restaurants, pubs and bars. Popular with the locals and a great place to spend the evening bar hopping.

 

Our Stark Perspective (Tips):

  • If you are traveling with a group of 2-5 people and plan on using public transportation often, buy a BUDAPEST 24-HOUR GROUP TRAVEL CARD for 3300HUF per day for unlimited travel on all transportation within city limits.
    • You will have to go to the second screen on the ticket machine to find this specific ticket type
  • A trip on the Budapest Castle Hill Funicular is quite costly and the views are identical to those at the Buda Castle grounds.
  • Hungary utilizes its own currency – the Hungarian Forint (HUF). Most places take credit cards, however it cannot be guaranteed. Like other countries with their own currency, many places will take Euros in a bind, but at a poor exchange rate.
  • At restaurants – tip/service charge is generally included in your bill.
  • Public Transportation to/from the airport takes close to 1 hour and requires a couple of easy transfers. There is an express bus to city center for approx. 6€
    • When departing from the Budapest airport, you cannot go through security until 2 hours before your flight.

Helpful Resources:

Vienna – Palaces and a Pair of Pandas

 

With only two full days in Vienna, long days were in order to make the most of our limited time in this opulent city. Upon our arrival late in the evening, we headed out in search of dinner. All of us were immediately in awe over the beauty of the magnificent buildings all lit up at night.

The best thing we did to soak in the beauty of the city was to take a walk from the Äußeres Burgtor (across from the Museum of Natural History) around the Burgring (inner ring). It is absolutely amazing to see all the grand buildings lit up. (Rathaus may have become my favorite building to see at night in all of Europe – absolutely spectacular. Pictures just don’t do it justice).

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Rathaus City Hall

Sites:

While the city is FILLED with over 100 wonderful museums of every interest imaginable, there were two things that we could not miss in our trip to Vienna – The Spanish Riding School where they train the Lipizzaner Stallions and the Tiergarten Schönbrunn, aka the Vienna Zoo. (The zoo recently had rare twin panda cubs which was the HIGHLIGHT of Megan’s birthday trip and a large part in why we found ourselves on this side of the continent. Saying Megan loves pandas may be the understatement of the year!)

IMG_1658The Spanish Riding School – The Famous Lipizzaner stallions are an elite group of horses and riders that perform elevated classical dressage around the world. They train year-round within Hofburg palace in Vienna. The riding school is the oldest of its kind in the world, first named in 1572. The methods practiced were originally developed to strengthen the war horse’s body and mind and make him a supreme athlete. Today, visitors can purchase a ticket to the riding school, allowing you to watch a 2 hour “show” in which the horses and riders exercise and practice for the larger performances on the weekend. About 6 groups of 5-6 horses enter the ring for their 20-minute window. Different skills levels are on display and if you are lucky enough, some may be practicing the famous aerial tricks! (We happened to witness three horses doing these jumps, which is very rare as the skills are strenuous and practiced infrequently).

FullSizeRenderSchönbrunn Palace and Grounds – This amazing area of the city is the former imperial summer residence featuring a huge 1,441 room palace, vast gardens, monuments, and of course the zoo. A fully day can be spent wandering around and exploring these amazing grounds. We arrived early in the morning to beat the crowds at the zoo, getting an up-close view of the cute panda cubs. Spring has sprung in Vienna, as many other babies could be spotted throughout the exhibits. A quick stop for lunch just outside the gates and it was time for our Palace tour. We opted to spend the extra couple dollars on the full tour and it was well worth it! As you wander through the 40 rooms, it is amazing to see the opulence in which the powerful royals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire lived. Don’t forget the free audio guide, providing great insight to the stories within the walls.

DSC01956 (1)Stephansdom (St. Stephens Cathedral) – Located in the heart of the tourist area, this huge church is the most important religious building in Vienna, dating back to the 12th century. While the Romanesque/Gothic architecture is impressive, the geometric titled roof (the Royal and Imperial double-headed eagle and the coat of arms of the city of Vienna are also created out of tile on the roof) is by far its most spectacular feature! Entrance into the Cathedral is free, but for a couple Euros you can climb to the bell tower and visit the catacombs below.

Naschmarkt – Like every great city in Europe, Vienna has a large outdoor market full of local specialties and fresh foods. The difference we found in visiting this one is that one side features a multitude of sit down restaurants of all different cuisines. Don’t miss the freshly grilled sausages, baked goods galore, amazing meat and cheese stands, or all the wonderful spices for culinary souvenirs!

Restaurants:

Gastwirtschaft Pürstner – With its eclectic, sometimes questionable, décor on every inch of this restaurant, it’s a great choice for an honest, quintessentially Austrian meal. The pork ribs and beefsteak in pepper sauce were especially delicious. The Wiener Schnitzel and Spätzle classically perfect. All washed down with big steins of Austrian beer at incredibly reasonable prices. One of our favorite meals we had while in Eastern Europe!

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Kutschker 44 – A welcome break from the heavy traditional cuisine of Eastern Europe, this informal modern restaurant was delicious. The contemporary menu changes seasonally and is prepared at the show kitchen situated right at the bar. Visiting near Easter, highlights included braised veal with potatoes, carrots, and plums and grilled lamb with asparagus risotto.

SacherTorte at Hotel Sacher – An original since 1832, and still made with the same recipe, we could not miss an opportunity to try a famous slice. This confection is comprised of a chocolate cake, thinly coated by hand with best-quality apricot jam, and topped with a thin layer of chocolate icing. For 6E it was quite pricey and the overall consensus from the group – while it was good, it was not a favorite. We prefer our chocolate cakes a little more “rich”.

Café Restaurant Weimar – If you enjoy coffee, no trip to Vienna is complete without an authentic Viennese café experience. Vienna, Austria has elevated coffee to an art form and its consumption to a lifestyle. By purchasing a single cup of coffee in one of the city’s grand old cafes, customers can spend entire days amongst a charming ambience and variety of patrons, making the Vienna coffee house an integral part of the city’s social experience. Be prepared to sit for at least an hour, and don’t you dare rush the waiter! With so many to choose from Café Restaurant Weimar, a classic, happened to be around the corner from our apartment. While convenient, it is also home to the head honcho of the official Vienna coffeehouse ruling board.

Our Stark Perspective (Tips):

  • To avoid the crowds, stay off of the main pedestrian street of Kärntner Straße. It does not have much character and is full of overpriced souvenir shops.
  • Austrian Banks don’t charge an ATM fee and seemed to have a pretty high limit.
  • Tip if traveling by train – if you don’t have an assigned seat on your train ticket, pick a seat in which there is a blank space on the “screen” above. The term Last Minute Reservations are assigned.

 

 

Prague – Family in a Fairytale City

DSC01389About midway through our travels we were lucky enough to welcome Drew’s family to experience Eastern Europe with us and celebrate yet another birthday, Megan’s. With a completely new experience ahead of us, we arrived 2 days prior to get a feel for the Czech Republic and the city of Prague. Their arrival brought much excitement as we began a 10 day jam packed adventure, covering 3 major cities – Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. We ate a lot of sausages and sauerkraut, we drank tons of beer, and we saw beautiful architecture found nowhere else. Below are the highlights of the first leg of the Stark Euro Vacation!

 

Notable Sites:

Old Town (Staré Město pražské) – Dating back to the 9th century, the gorgeous old town features amazing examples of medieval architecture unlike anywhere else. Tall slender church spires pierce the sky while surrounded by severely pitched roofs and decorative facades. Winding through the narrow cobblestone streets reveals amazing sites at every turn. The Old Town Square is the epicenter of the action, bordered by some of the most famous Prague buildings.DSC01271

  • For only a couple of dollars, take the
    elevator (or the stairs) to the top of the Old Town Hall Tower (the one with the astronomical clock – see our tips below) for the most amazing views of the city and the famous church.

Church of Our Lady before Týn – Dating back to the 14th century, the exterior of the grand church is by far the most impressive example of Gothic architecture in the city. Visits to the interior are only open a few times during the week, however not necessary as it is quite understated.

Dům U Minuty House – 90 degrees to your left, when staring at the astrological clock, this beautiful building may be one of my favorites in the city. The impressive façade is a beautiful example of the high-Renaissance architecture, covered in ornate graffito decorations. Be sure not to miss it!

Museum of Medieval Torture – Located at the entrance to the Charles bridge (from the old town side) this three-level museum was a very unique and fascinating experience. This museum showcases the various instruments used by Europe’s powers to torment heretics, “witches,” political rebels, scapegoats, gluttons, insufficiently amusing entertainers, women who talked too much, and other assorted enemies of the state. The 60+ torture devices are accompanied by medieval-style cartoons illustrating their use, as well as detailed textual explanations of their workings.

Charles Bridge – At most times of the day, this historic bridge is a total wall of tourists, so you must go early or late to try and beat the crowds. Finished in the 15th century, this is another beautiful example of gothic architecture; the old town bridge tower is often considered to be one of the most astounding civil gothic-style buildings in the world. Added in the 1700s, the bridge is now decorated by 30 statues and statuaries. By far the most scenic way to cross the river.

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The Charles Bridge

Prague Castle – The most prominent part of the skyline when looking west across the Vltava River, the Prague Castle complex dates back to the 9th century and is the largest ancient castle in the world. Despite guards at the front entrance, you can enter the grounds without a ticket. Once inside, spend the extra money and opt for Circuit A which grants you visitation to the gorgeous St. Vitus Cathedral, Old Royal Palace, St. George’s Basilica, Golden Lane with Daliborka Tower (old prison), Powder Tower, and Rosenberg Palace. **We opted for Circuit B and missed out on Rosenburg Palace which actually houses the apartments and other furnishings that have been stripped from the Old Royal Palace. While impressive it is now just empty rooms with explanations of the importance of the space** Don’t miss the extensive Armor Exhibit in Golden Lane, or the beautiful Prague National Gallery Entrance Hall (another of my favorite buildings due to the incredible frescos on the façade) located outside the main entrance to the castle grounds.

Lennon Wall – Tucked amongst a lovely maze of streets and canals, since the 1980s the John Lennon Wall has become a special place representing love and peace, filled with John Lennon inspired graffiti and pieces of lyrics from Beatles songs. The wall continuously undergoes change and the original portrait of Lennon is long lost under layers of new paint. Special bonus if the amazing acoustic guitarist happens to be there singing some classic Beatles songs!

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A young boy sharing words of love at the Lennon Wall

Restaurants:

Naše Maso – By far one of the most delicious meals of our trip. At this tiny little butcher shop, you walk up to the raw meat counter and order from a limited menu of house specialties. They then cook up the high-quality product in the back while you make your way to one of the 6 little butch block tables. Don’t miss the meatloaf – Perfectly seasoned mixture of meats with large “croutons” baked in. Not sweet like your grandmother’s brown sugar ketchup glazed version we all grew up with. The steak tartare is excellent. Don’t forget to order a cup of beer with your meal and refill it at the tap in the corner. An absolute cannot miss in Prague. But come early as there will likely be a line out the door and couples eyeing up your table at each bite.

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The incredible meatloaf at Nase Maso

Lokál – The go to place for well-priced large local beer and that German beer hall feel. There are multiple locations throughout the city, but the best one is Lokál Dlouhááá where hundreds of people gather until late at night downing liters and liters of Prague’s favorite drink. In our 5 days, we visited at least 4 times! (They also offer local food specialties, more options available during the day)

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Breakfast of dumpling, bacon, and sauerkraut

Naplavka Farmers’ Market – A fun and interesting experience, especially given the complete lack of knowledge of the Czech language. A very popular spot for locals on their Saturday mornings. Food stalls line the water’s edge with everything from beer (which they are drinking by 10am), coffee (the longest lines), all kinds of food, household goods, and local prepared dishes. Great unknown baked treats and a traditional breakfast of potato dumplings, bacon, and sauerkraut (scooped from HUGE pans with a shovel) where among our favorites we tried.

Ferdinanda – Our first taste of Czech food after a long afternoon of traveling. This local restaurant is outside of the hustle of old town but worth the trip if you are in the area. HUGE $1 Czech Beer, house made pickled sausage, headcheese, and goulash. All very tasty and incredibly well priced.

U Maltézských rytířů – An old knight’s tavern on the castle side of the Charles Bridge. Make sure to eat downstairs to get the full feeling of this historical building. Traditional Czech cuisine (like Pork knee and goulash), reasonably priced. One of Drew’s mom’s favorite places we ate in Prague.

In waiting for the family to arrive and to keep all the “must see” areas for when we were all together, a trip to the Karlin district lead us to two amazing restaurants, only frequented by locals. Karlin is a popular business district so Saturdays and Sundays are VERY quiet, and many of the shops closed. If you have an extra day and what to get away from touristy old town for a fantastic meal, Karlin is easily accessible via the Metro.

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Amazing Fruit Dumplings

Krystal Bistro (in the Karlin district) – The sole purpose for our trip to Krystal Bistro was to try the traditional fruit dumplings (Svestkove Knedliky), found all over Prague, but here they were exceptional! A warm steamed dough filled with whole plums atop plum sauce. They are then covered with a mixture of ground poppy seeds and sugar and finally topped with crème fraiche to help cut the sweetness. Orders come in 1 or 3 pieces. So good you’ll be wanting to lick the plate. Be sure to save plenty of room!

Eska (in the Karlin district) – A sous chef from a local Michelin Star restaurant left to open this “Modern Casual Czech” spot in commercial Karlin district. An open concept kitchen with communal table downstairs, and an industrial upper floor with bar and pastry prep area. Even on a Saturday afternoon, reservations are necessary and there is a reason why. This restaurant pushed the envelope on class Czech cuisine. Gourmet coffee and tea with excellent preparations utilizing a wood fire oven. The chef went for something more obscure than my grilled endive and vegetable salad with mustard vinaigrette, ordering the smoked whole pork tongue paired with chickpeas, carrots and parsnips. We left entirely too full as everything was EXCELLENT. Highly recommended, especially for a break from that traditional Czech food.

Day trip to Český Krumlov

We chose to drive to Vienna, not only to see the countryside but to stop at Český Krumlov, a small city in the South Bohemian Region of the Czech Republic. This little town is one of the most Picturesque in all of Europe, and the most perfect place to break

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The Bohemian Feast

up the 5 hour drive. The stunning castle sites high above the Vltava River overlooking the quaint old town below. The buildings that comprise the town look untouched since the 1400s, giving the feeling that you have stepped back in time
and are wandering through a storybook. We settled in for lunch at Krčma U dwau Maryí, one of the many riverside restaurants with the most amazing view of the castle from the outside terrace. We ordered the typical bohemian feast of chicken, ham, dumplings, potatoes and salad – tasting and a fun way to share the local specialty.

No trip to Český Krumlov would be complete without a trip to the Castle and it’s amazing grounds. Unfortunately for us, the interior didn’t open until April 1st, however the museum and tower were still enjoyable and offered the most amazing views of the town below. If you happen to be lucky enough, the entrance of the castle is “guarded” by at least one bear, who I imagine spends much of his days sleeping. A great stop over and one of the highlights of the trip for the entire family!

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The view of Cesky Krumlov from the top of the Castle Tower

Our Stark Perspective (Tips):

  • Despite being in the EU, the Czech Republic has their own currency – the Czech Koruna.
    • There are still quite a few places that do not accept credit card, so be sure to have either Euros or Koruna on you, just in case.
    • When paying in Euros, you will often receive change in Czech Koruna. The downfall of this is you will likely get a terrible conversion rate.
  • Czech Banks do not charge an ATM fee, but make sure you withdraw money out of ATMS physically located at a bank.
    • Do not opt for the conversion to be done by the ATM. Just withdraw the Koruna amount requested.
  • In the spring, the evenings get very cold. Be sure to dress in layers.
  • Don’t go out of your way to be at the astrological clock on the hour. You will be amongst a ton of people and the “show” is not that impressive. Go on the off times when you can get close to the clock and admire the intricacy.
  • Spend the extra couple dollars for the whole tour of the Prague Castle. The basic four-part tour offers a very limited showing of the buildings.

Helpful Resources:

Lisbon – Millions of Stairs, Dozens of Views, and a Birthday!

 

I take it back Lyon…. Lisbon is the city of stairs! Upon arriving via high speed train from Algarve, it was time to make our way to our apartment in the oldest part of town – Alfama. While I knew about the infamous trollies (one ran outside our front door), touting tourists up the “hill” of Lisbon, I did not realize just how extreme that hill was. About half way up our immensely steep route we were regretting our decision to walk, but at that point we had come this far so there was no option but to continue on. Welcome to LISBON!

The city has a very unique history. It was originally settled by the Romans in 205 B.C. making it the second oldest city (outside of Rome) in all of Europe. Centuries of battles later, Christians recaptured the city from the Moors and by the 15th century it became the point of departure for all of the Portuguese Explorations. Due to this Lisbon became the world’s most prosperous trading center until an earthquake in 1755 destroyed nearly the entire city (except for Alfama where all the “riff raff” happen to live), killing thousands of its residents. The city was then rebuilt on top of the rubble forming the Baixa neighborhood, which still remains today as the main commercial center of town.

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Discoveries Monument

After a free walking tour the first day, we spent the next five wandering around the city, celebrating a birthday, and eating at some very typical Portuguese restaurants which have been around for ages. Below are some of our favorite highlights during our time in this Portuguese Capital.

 

Interesting Discoveries

Belem –  The area of the city which lies 5km to the west, where all of the voyages of discovery originated. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, this area is full of grassy parks, museums, and plenty of monuments dedicated to the famous explorers. Despite the long line, a visit to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is worth it. This extravagant monastery was funded by the wealth and trade that flowed from the Portugal’s colonies during the 16th century. It is one of the most decorative churches of Portugal and simply breathtaking. Continuing along the water’s edge you cannot miss the Padrão aos Descobrimentos (Discoveries Monument), an imposing concrete monument celebrating Portugal’s explorers and the era of discovery, before reaching the Torre de Belem (Belem Tower) or old guard tower. On the way back towards the tram stop you will pass the Pastéis de Belem, with its line of tourists out the door waiting to try the famous Pastel de Nata. This bakery is the traditional home of the delicious Portuguese cake, and no trip to Belem is complete without trying one (however we preferred the ones from Café Versailles).

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Jeronimos Monestary

Nucleo Arqueologico da Rua dos Correeiros– This free tour of the Roman Ruins situated underneath a modern bank building in the Baixa neighborhood was very interesting. Originally discoveredDSC00962 (1) when the bank wanted to build an underground parking lot, these ruins show examples of life (including a fish processing factory) spanning multiple time periods in Lisbon before the earthquake destroyed everything. You can only see the ruins during a small guided tour, which lasts about 45 minutes. Add your name to the list next door ahead of time and enjoy this unique piece of history!

FadoEverywhere you go in Lisbon (especially Alfama) guys standing outside restaurants will trying to lure you into their place for Fado, the traditional music from this region. This “folk” music includes instruments like guitars and mandolins with one Fadista singing poetic lyrics related to darker elements of love, death and sadness – traditionally sung about their loved ones going away during on voyages during the time of exploration. Best to enjoy during dinner, all service and chatter will stop while the woman pours her heart out through song. A very interesting and unique experience. Popular spots for a good performance include – Clube do Fado, The Fado Museum, and Sr. Fado de Alfama.

 

Viewpoints

Because of the hills which flank the city on either side, there are some absolutely amazing viewpoints which must not be missed. Each one was very different both from the views as well as the people enjoying it.

At the top of Alfama lies Miradouro da Graca. The Igreja e Convento da Graca with its terrace, overlooks the Castelo de São Jorge, the water, and city below. A wonderful spot to grab a glass of wine from the small bar (or better – bring your own) and soak in the view. It’s especially beautiful in the evening.

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Miradouro de Graca

One evening as we were making our way from Barrio Alto back to Alfama, we stumbled upon Miradouro de Santa Catarina, a small hill behind Museu da Famacia where over a hundred locals were gathered with their liters of beer or bottles of wine, just waiting for the sunset. Despite the clear day prohibiting a spectacular sunset, this spot had a perfect view of the bridge and river below. (Tip– Avoid the high prices of the hill kiosk and walk down R. Mal. Saldanha to #19, a small market on the left with a sign reading “Produtos Nacionais e Brasileire”. There you can buy a liter of local beer for 1.85€, among other options. They’ll even give you plastic cups for sharing!)

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The hill at Miradouro de Santa Catarina

Likely the most visited viewpoint in all of Lisbon, the upper platform of the Elevador de Santa Justa high above Barrio Alto gives visitors a view of Alfama and the Castelo de São Jorge. (Tip – Save money and avoid the charge for the elevator from Baixa. A little way up the hill to the back, near Convento do Carmo, you can walk right on the platform. There is an extra 1.50€ charge to go a little higher, however the view is practically the same)

To the north of the city lies probably the second most visited viewpoint, Miradouro do Parque Eduardo VII. Due to its location, the famous Lisbon hills frame the city perfectly with the river in the distance. The long park below is also a great place to relax on a beautiful day.

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Parque Eduardo VII behind us

Another lookout point in Alfama and popular with the Tuk Tuk tours, the Portas Do Sol overlooks the river to the west. Some local restaurants surround the square offering a place to eat while enjoying the views.

 

Restaurants

Portugal is famous for their sardines, which can found in every tourist shop or represented on virtually all souvenirs. Unfortunately, our visit did not coincide with the season so we were unable to indulge in that local specialty. In search for other authentic dishes we did come across a couple of other great options.

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Tasca Bela – This small and cozy place in the heart of Alfama was by far the best food we ate our entire time in Portugal. Even though 90% of the food was prepared cold “salads”, each plate was so flavorful they did not make you miss a warm dish. The mixed salad plate is certainly the way to go (along with a bottle of house wine) to ensure that you get a taste of everything.

 

 

 

Restaurante Zapata – A bit outside of the main town, this local restaurant was authentic as they come. With the specials written on a table cover and taped to the wall (a tell tail sign it’s the type of place you want to be at) we opted for a “stew” with pasta and Bacala (salted cod that has been rehydrated – another very important ingredient in Portuguese cuisine) and the suckling pig. We had herd rave reviews about the octopus, but since it was late afternoon they had already run out. Each dish was incredibly flavorful, the beers huge and extremely well priced. If we were staying on that side of town, I am sure we would have been back a second time.

Pastelaria Marques Pombal – In the north part of town on Av. da Liberdade, this local lunch spot was bustling with business people from all of the nearby offices. We opted for the daily special, a duck rice, and a traditional Portuguese sausage which seemed almost like it was made of scrapple. Surprising but absolutely delicious.

IMG_1392Ze da Mourirara – Now with 2 locations, one closing up in the late afternoon, this traditional eatery was a recommendation from the owner at Bela. HUGE portions (for 2) of all the dishes you would imagine at a huge Portuguese family gathering. We agreed to give Bacala one last try (we had now had it so much over the pat 2 months) accompanied by all the sides – greens, chickpeas, and potatoes. It was incredibly tasty, just as we imagined it should be. Reservations are recommended or get there early! And be sure to come with an empty stomach.

Restaurante Tolan – Our last meal in Alfama before we left, this tiny little eatery is exactly what you would imagine when the matriarch of the family decides to open up a restaurant. With only her son to help, this duo produced a solid meal of seafood stew and mussels.

Café Versailles – An upscale café with a couple locations taking pride in the “art of coffee”. HUGE display cases of pasties and sweet line the wall. It was here where we had our favorite Pasties de Nata of the trip (Despite Belem’s being served warm – the flavor at Versailles was far superior).

Cais do VInho Wine Bar – This great little wine bar on the main street just outside Barrio Alto specializes in Portuguese wines. We had an amazing time tasting both reds and whites from around the region. Initially we thought the price of 20E for four tastings was a little high (it was my birthday after all) but our 8 hand selected tastes quickly turned into 16, as our “guide” poured more and more based on our preferences. If you’re interested in sampling the wines from around the country, this place is a must stop! Ask for Luciana (They also do port and madeira tastings for something a little more unique to Portugal)

**We stumbled across the new Time Out Market Lisboa on our way back from Belem. While we did not get a chance to eat anything at one of the many food vendors inside, it looks like a great concept similar to the tapas markets we experienced in Spain!**

 

Our Stark Perspective (Tips)

  • Bring Cash – many of the small local places do not take credit cards
    • Portuguese Banks do not charge ATM fee; however they may have a limit on withdrawals.
  • Unlike every other major city- each person must have their own public transit card. We found this out the hard way on the way to the airport.
  • Surprisingly there are no real supermarkets in town but only expensive neighborhood mini marts
  • Going out to eat is relatively inexpensive and Lisbon locals do it often!
  • The most authentic restaurants will have the daily dishes written on a paper table cover taped to the wall.
  • Bring sturdy walking shoes (and prepare for sore legs!). The ground is extremely uneven and the hills very steep.

Link to all the great viewpoints – http://www.golisbon.com/sight-seeing/viewpoints.html

 

Algarve, Portugal – Never Ending Natural Beauty

The Algarve region of Portugal is a wonderful area along the southern coast of Portugal, dotted with several pretty towns, large beaches and incredible rock cliffs that plunge deep into the sea below. Coming from Seville, the only way to get to Portugal (other than a quick flight) is to take an inexpensive bus ride, transferring in the commercial town of Faro. As with a couple other stops along our trip, if we are going to be there to transfer, why not stay a couple nights? And that is just what we did.

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View from the bell tower of Se Cathedral, Faro

Faro is the regional capital of the area and rich with cultural history. The walled quaint old town sits above the harbor, the medieval Se Cathedral at its center. A tour of the cathedral is well worth the price, as you also gain access to the bell tower. The old stairs up to the tower, especially if they are slightly wet, can be quite treacherous but here one can find the best views of the harbor and traditional pyramid roofs of the city buildings below. Also within the walls of the old town (and for a very reasonable 2€ entrance fee) was the Museu Municipal. This museum is situated in a gorgeous old convent and features artifacts dating back to the 3rd century, all found within the Faro city limits. Another unique and very interesting site that must not be missed was the Capela de Ossos or Bone Chapel to the back of the Igreja do Carmo, in the north east part of town. This chapel was constructed in 1719 using the remains of 1,245 monks whose bones were displaced when the ossuary was built.

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The Courtyard of Museu Municipal

While the city of Faro is situated along water, it is Ria Formosa – the marshlands and lagoons where local fisherman anchor their boats, heading out at high tide early in the morning. To get to the beaches of Faro which form the outer edge and are technically their own island, you must either take a boat ride through the preserve (spotting wildlife along the way) or by city bus No 14 or 16 to Praia de Faro – the only one reached by a roadway connection. Not exactly ideal for the 300 days of sunshine a year that grace the Algarve region, however their somewhat remote location offers flat long stretches of golden sand.

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Capela de Ossos – The Bone Chapel 

The center city of Faro lacks a bit of character, as commercial shopping streets dotted with restaurants were just waiting for the tourists to arrive. It didn’t matter what time of the day we wandered by, it was all the same scene. Menus at the restaurants were displayed in 6 languages and what we had of the food was just so so. A little outside of the main center, near the train station, we discovered Adega Nova. Other than our new friends Lizzie and Lenny, we were the only ones speaking English in the place! Proof we were in a local spot. As thunder and rain swept across the town, we helped ourselves to traditional fish stew with rice and whole fried little Mackerel (stomach and all still intact!). Four 9€ bottles of wine between us two couples later, we wandered down the street to Innocent, continuing our new-found friendship over the acoustic music of one incredibly talented gentleman named Denzel.

A day trip to Lagos (via the extremely slow local train) brought us to the picture-perfect cliffs and beaches that Algarve is known for. Upon our immediate arrival, we were greeted with lively people and that relaxed beach town feel. While the city has been slightly commercialized (and a lively late night party destination for abroad students on holiday) there are many pockets to be discovered, still holding on to the traditions of the region. Try Cataplana de Marisco, the fish stew made in a copper “clam shell” pot, listed on practically every menu.

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Hiking along the cliffs

Due to the weather overnight, the seas were so rough we were unable to take the guided boat tour through the famous grottos, cliffs, and caves. Since this was one of our must do activities while in the area, we were determined to find another way. Just outside the city walls to the southeast of the city, Praia do Pinhao lies – the first of a long line of beaches carved out of the beautiful multicolored cliffs. From here a network of small hiking paths lead us for over an hour across the stunning shore line, all the way to Ponta da Piedade. This southernmost tip of Lagos has the most amazing views in the Algarve which span over the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay of Lagos, the hills of Monchique in the background, and other coastal towns to the west and east. A walk down the long stairs offers an up-close view of some of the most famous points visited on the boat tours. While we chose to take the “long way” enjoying the gorgeous day, this spot can also be reached via car/taxi, boat, or direct walking route from town. Despite another long two-hour train ride back to Faro, this day trip was one to not be missed!

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Rough seas at Ponta da Piedade

While the town of Faro was fine for the couple days that we were there (not to mention extremely convenient from our travels between Seville and Lisbon) to us, it lacked the authentic character we were hoping for. Yes, the old town was quaint but it was very small and sleepy. The main shopping streets were so commercial with their empty international storefronts. And the beach, being a journey just to get there, did not allow for that relaxing Algarve beach atmosphere one travels to experience. We are certain we will be back to the region, but will choose to stay in one of the small towns between Faro and Lagos, relaxing on the beach and exploring more of the area.

Our Stark Persepctive (Tips)

  • The train along the Algarve coast starts in Faro and ends in Lagos. The total distance takes about 2 hours and is quite expensive for a round trip (15€ per person).
    • If you plan on visiting more than one city along the coast, opt for the Tourist pass which will allows unlimited rides on the local train over a period of time.
  • If you want to see the caves without traveling all the way to Lagos, Seafaris tour company departs from Vilamoura (within close proximity to Faro).
    • Alternatively – the Bengail Cave can be reached by car from the town of Portimão.
  • Missed Restaurant Recommendations
    • Restaurante Republica Gourmet, Faro
    • Cashina de Pescito, Lagos

 

 

Seville – Sunny and Seventy

The feeling of Seville is unlike any other city we have visited yet. Bright colored or tiled buildings full of character, warm weather (do not even contemplate about visiting in July or August), and friendly people. Other than the fact that we drove into the nightmare of narrow roads on a busy Friday night, we had a warm welcome to the city and instantly had an affinity for it.

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Much to our surprise, the food was a complete contrast to this lovely Southern Spanish town. We thought we were heading into fresh seafood, wonderful produce, tastes of the Mediterranean, but we were so wrong! It seemed as though everything was fried and vegetables were few and far between (Even speaking to a bartender who had moved from Prague over a year ago – she too had the same surprised encounter with the local cuisine).

With almost five days in the city, and a local connection through a friend, we were able to cover a lot of ground. Below are our highlights of our time in Seville.

Restaurants –

Eloy Patio – Like everywhere in Seville, ceramic tiles are the décor of choice and this restaurant is no different. Cheap, easy, and quick this tiled stadium seating only spot serves about 25 large montaditios (sandwiches) for about $2.50 each. Overflowing with people at all hours of the day, it is the perfect gathering spot for cheap beers and pretty good bites.

Dos de Mayo – A small bar/restaurant that has been around for years and a local favorite.  The fried little flounders were a wonderful substitute for the boquerones we had now been eating for over a month. Pretty good local dishes and a good value as each item can be ordered as either a tapa(small) or a portion(large).

IMG_1196Pepe Hillo – If you find yourself around the bull ring at lunch, wander down the back street to Pepe Hillo. Bull heads from the local fights over the years are mounted on the restaurant walls. Food was quite good, produce fresh, and relatively inexpensive. We thoroughly enjoyed the roasted peppers with shrimp and stuffed avocado.

Mercado Lonja Del Barranco – New to Seville (and rumored to have been designed by the same architect as the Eiffel tower) this tapas market was very similar to San Miguel Market in Madrid. Filled with jamon bars, oysters, all kinds of paella, wine, beer and every other type of Spanish specialties. A beautiful place to sit near the river and enjoy the perfect Seville weather.

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Alhambra – One of the best meals we had in Seville and in a lovely location. From the Chef’s Perspective “We started with Salmorejo, a type of gazbacho, served with a cooked quail egg, jamon, and cherry tomato halves. It was absolutely delicious. I’m very partial to my gazpacho recipe that I got when working at Oceana in NYC, but this was almost as good. The next course was an olive oil cured Manchego cheese with gooseberries, walnuts and candied spaghetti squash. Once again, an amazing combination of flavors – so simple yet so good. For a main course dish, we ordered with a duck lasagna (we found it very interesting on the menu, so we had to try it). Made with lasagna noodles, layered with duck pate and duck prosciutto it was a very imaginative dish. Overall the restaurant was an amazing little find in the heart of a very touristy area”.

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Mechela Restaurante – In talking with a French national, now Seville local, at a bar one night (until 2AM!) he recommended this local place, hidden in a back street near the Museo de Bellas Artes. This ended up being another amazing meal while in Seville and the perfect end to our stay. A great wine list complemented the tasty crispy prawn with cashew ajo blanco, razor clams al la plancha, sweet potato gnocchi with smoked sardines and broccoli pesto, and oxtail tajine with couscous and chickpeas.

 

 

Sites –

Plaza Espana – Absolutely beautiful and quite possibly one of our favorite spots in Seville. Built in 1928 to showcase Spain’s industry and technology exhibits during the Ibero-American Exposition. This gorgeous complex is a huge half-circle with buildings continually running around the edge, accessible over the moat by numerous bridges representing the four ancient kingdoms of Spain. By the walls of the Plaza are many tiled alcoves, each representing a different province of Spain. Such a unique space filled with meaning and maybe even a flamenco performance or two!

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Reales Alcázares de Sevilla – One of the must-see tourist locations within Seville. This beautiful royal palace was originally developed by Moorish Muslim kings as early as the 1st century and is considered one of the most outstanding examples of mudéjar architecture found on the Iberian Peninsula. The entire palace is covered in bright ornate ceramic tiles and the grounds, huge lush gardens. The private bath, nearly hidden through a small entrance in the gardens, was absolutely breathtaking. The upper levels of the Alcázar are still used by the royal family making it the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe. Our only critique – the tour of the lower floors is exempt from showing how the royals actually occupied the space. Rather you wander through beautiful empty rooms and must imagine what the furnishings would have looked like.

Triana – A lovely neighborhood with its own identity on the western bank of the river. Locals and tourists alike gather on pedestrian streets filled with shops and restaurants. Wandering away from the main street takes you back in time to an area hardly touched by tourism. The best place to buy ceramics and something this area takes very seriously!

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Iglesia del Salvador – Absolutely incredible with the most ornate alters and chapels we have seen. The Spaniards take such pride in the incredible decoration, all gilded in gold. Inside are a total of 14 altarpieces, all unbelievably stunning. Get the free audio guide (although mine was set up wrong and the numbers are a little confusing) for a detailed description of what you are looking at.

 

 

 

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Palacio de las Dueñas – A little off the beaten path of the high tourist area, this lovely palace was a great place to duck out of the rainy weather. It was built in the late 15th century in the Renaissance style with Gothic and Moorish influences. In the spring and summer the façade is blanketed in purple bougainvillea and absolutely stunning. The museum features a large decorative arts collection and furnishing of the past couple centuries. The gardens are filled with orange streets and the sweet smell of citrus. A wonderful treat in the northern part of town.

 

Other Notable Experiences –

Flamenco Show at La Carboneria – After weaving all the way across town, we arrived to a dark alley where La Carboneria awaited and their free Flamenco show (as long as you buy a drink at the bar). Shuffling to our seats at long communal tables, we splurged on the 10E bottle of red wine and sat back to enjoy the show. About every half hour an incredible set of traditional Spanish song and dance is performed. In the beginning the host, a 70 something year old man, pulls at your heartstrings as he bellows the emotional songs of flamenco accompanied by a solo guitar. A couple songs in, the beautiful dancer in her long flowing dress stands up on the wooden platform and begins to stomp and move along with the sounds of the guitar and singer. If you’re lucky, an 80 something year old man will accompany her for a song. Such an emotionally fueled experience in a rustic and memorable location.

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She never stopped moving so it was near impossible to get a good photo! 

 

Practicing for Semana Santa – We visited Seville about a month before Semana Santa or holy week. Seville is known worldwide for their celebrations, in which enormous platforms or pasos dripping in silver or gold depicting religious scenes are walked by brotherhoods (there are nearly 70!) from their home church to the Cathedral of Seville and back. Some of the routes for the suburban barrios could take up to 14 hours to return!

As we were heading back to our apartment on our first evening in town, we noticed gatherings of people in little alleys all over the place, enjoying drinks and one another’s company. At the alley nearest our apartment, we finally realized what was going on as one of the local brotherhoods were practicing their march with an empty platform. Up to 30 men had to be in complete unison as they slowly stepped up the streets navigating around corners and uneven roadways. We even bumped into another brotherhood later in our stay, as they all stopped by Dos de Mayo for a drink after rehearsal, still wearing the custom padded “hats” needed to support the immense weight of the platform.

Our Stark Perspective (Tips) –

  • Siestas are big in Seville (due to the heat in the summer months) so practically all stores and restaurants close between 2-5pm.
  • Entrance to Real Alcazar and the Plaza de toros (bull ring) are both free on Monday afternoon. It is impossible to do both, as you need to wait in line for Alcazar starting around 2:15pm and the bull ring only allows a certain number of people, which will have entered by the time you walk over there.
  • If you can avoid it – Don’t drive! In the old city (like all of Europe) the streets are especially tight with hardly enough room for even small cars. Traffic is also particularly busy, making it very frustrating and near impossible to get around.
  • Public transportation is pretty non-existent, but we felt the city was extremely walkable.

Jamón Ibérico in Andalucía

Choosing to rent a car for the 5 hour journey from Madrid to Seville was an easy choice, allowing us the freedom to explore some of the areas otherwise missed. Since arriving in Spain we have eaten our fair share of Jamón ibérico, but the Chef wanted to see the production for himself so we headed to Andalucía. About an hour north of Seville, Jamones Eíriz Jabugo has been operating in the same tiny town of Puerto Gil since 1818. This family run farm is located way off the beaten path, tucked in the back corner of NARROW one lane roads hugging the hillside. The drive up was breathtaking as we twisted through the oak forests, getting our first glimpse of those famous black pigs gorging on acorns. By far one of the most scenic areas either of us had ever been.

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Fat and Happy pigs on the way to Eiriz

Finally arriving at Eíriz, we were led to the field where their pigs were kept. Due to Spanish Ibérico regulations they can only raise 15-20 pigs on their land, but for this family business it is more about curing the ham than raising pigs. Since they cannot raise near enough pigs for annual production, Eíriz purchases their animals from certified farmers only using the front and back legs and the loin for their high-quality product. The rest of the animal is sold back to the butcher. The butchering of the animals is done very humanly, keeping the stress level of the animal at an absolute minimum so to not affect the quality of the meat. This initial phase of the process takes place between December and Early March, when the pigs are at their fattest eating close to 15KG of acorns a day. Due to the timing of our visit we only saw the little baby pigs which will be ready in about 2 years.

Dressed in food production attire of long sterile robes, hair nets, and shoe covers, it was time for our first look into the process. We were led to a room where three women were processing lomo, the product in which the loins are marinated in a mixture of paprika, salt and other spices, then stuffed into casing and hung to out for months to cure. Every process at Eíriz is still done by hand, setting them apart from the other major producers in the area.

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The Salt Room – where the curing process begins

Our guide then led us to the salt room where hundreds of legs were packed in sea salt for up to 2 weeks to begin the curing process. They are then rinsed and hung up in the natural curing rooms (another difference between Eíriz and many other producers and only found in Andalucía due to its perfect climate) to complete the aging over the next couple years. Buyers can visit the farm and hand pick their leg based on type, weight, fat content, and many other factors.

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Jamon Legs hanging in the natural cure rooms

One very interesting thing explained during our time at Eíriz was the difference between the color labels on the Jamón ibérico and what they mean. Ibérico pigs are known and famous for being very fatty, and while this is optimal many people don’t want to pay for something that ultimately gets cut away and trashed. Thus, cross breeding between the black Ibérico pigs from Andalucía and red pigs from the US started reducing the fat content in the animal. Black and Red label legs are the top quality produced, made from 85% – 100% wild grazing Ibérico pigs. The white and green label legs are still a quality product, at least 50% Ibérico, but these are the animals that have been cross bred for higher muscle content. It is because of this that farming is highly regulated and farms certified for accuracy. Additionally, contrary to what we believed, you cannot have 100% acorn fed animals because the highest quality animals are grazing on whatever they can find in the earth such as grubs and roots, thus diet cannot be controlled 100%.

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The Chef learning about quality Jamon

The tour ended in the old curing room (now converted to tasting room) where we were served huge plates of Jamon paired with local wines. The difference between the black label and green label jamon was easily identifiable when placed side by side. A beautiful and educational experience into the region’s most coveted product.

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Sampling the end product!

Madrid – In Spain, Don’t make plans…

One of the best parts of traveling is the people that you meet along the way, many times leading to unexpected and amazing experiences. We had a bit of an unconventional stay in Madrid because of our new friends Marcos and Anna, the couple we met in Valencia at the best Sepia al la plancha place ever. But more on that later!
We arrived to Madrid in luxury, or at least it felt that way. The high speed train from Valencia was so roomy and updated it felt as though we were in business class of a nice airplane. A great treat from previous modes of transportation (I sometimes felt like we were going through the summer 2016 septa train fiasco all over again – hello graffiti and DSC00762 (1)worn down upholstery). Arriving later in the evening there was not much to do but get our bearings and head to dinner at Restaurante Sando in the theatre district. We were lucky enough that it was Madrid’s version of restaurant weeksaving us half off the regular tasting menu price. The food was good – like jamon croquettes that actually tasted like wonderfully cured ham and the zucchini “ravioli” filled with Iberian pork shoulder – however to us, the beautifully decorated interior far surpassed the food. The highlight of the meal, much to our surprise, was the dessert – an incredibly airy lime mousse with wrinkled tuiles, fresh fruit sauce, and violet jelly – a perfect harmony of sour and sweet and a great way to end the meal.

It is impossible to pack all the major sites in this Spanish New York City in one day. We set out in the morning to chip away at the exhaustive list of must sees. The first notable stop was Plaza Mayor, since it was just up from the apartment. Although the plaza is now over run with tourists and people trying to sell you light up trinkets, the grandeur of the space is quite impressive and Calle de Toledo leading up to has kept its character with local restaurants and shops, including a go to place for Espadrilles. Wandering down Calle Gran Via (Broadway Avenue NYC?  Including the Starbucks every couple blocks) we eventually found ourselves on the western side of town, making our way through lovely parks and squares until reaching Palacio Real de Madrid, or the Royal Palace and its gardens. A massive and impressive 18th century palace with a great viewpoint over gardens and the western part of the city.

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Palacio Real de Madrid

Throughout our minor explorations of the city there were two spots in which we knew we had to stop to eat. The first was Botin, the oldest continuously ran restaurant in the world and one which specializes in whole roasted suckling pig. We were immediately escorted into the basement where we sat directly in front of the cellar entrance with views of bottles so encrusted in dust, they must have been placed there at least a hundred years ago. The suckling pig dish arrived (a smaller portion than we were anticipating) along with baby squid in sauce made with their own ink, garlic and herbs. The skin on pork was so crispy and the squids incredibly flavorful. Well done for a restaurant which has been running since 1725.

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Down in the wine cellar at Botin

The other was San Miguel Market, a wonderful collection of small tapas “restaurants” with a center bar. Each stall specialized in a different dish or cuisine, allowing diners to browse and sample a variety of items for minimal cost. With long lines formed at each register, this market was popular with both locals and tourists looking for regional specialties. For dinner, since we had eaten sporadically throughout the day, we had the pleasure of discovering Madrid’s “buy a drink and you’ll get a tapa” concept at a couple dive bars in the area. While the food wasn’t great, each place sent out huge plates of their version of patatas bravas and pintxos. It truly was the perfect budget friendly and casual option after many weeks of eating out.

Our second and final day in Madrid we met up with Marcos (unfortunately Anna had to work) and he took us on a day trip outside the city to Embalse del Atazar, a lake about a hours drive north. This region is not commonly visited by tourists, which made it all the better for us. Filled with trails, you could walk for miles around the lake’s somewhat arid but beautiful terrain. We did not see another person once while walking but Marcos informed us the area is full of Madrid locals during the summer, just trying to escape the city heat.  Another highlight of the day was the restaurant we went for lunch, El Picachuelo Restaurante Asador. Situated on the hill with a terrace overlooking the lake (and friendly donkeys in the field next door) we shared the reasonably priced 3 course lunch menu which was actually quite good. After a full day in the sun, we headed back to the city and connecting with some of Marcos’ friends for more drinks and tapas. They were excited to introduce us to typical Sidra from the Asturias region, a non-carbonated alcoholic Cider. Normally poured from bottle to glass between outstretched arms, this bar provided a shortcut of an electronic aeration machine which may have been more fun to operate than effective. Hours later the 6 of us had stuffed ourselves full of plates of food and 6 bottles of Sidra, and much to our surprise the bill was only 45. I guess it helps having locals around who know how to order. By 2am it was time to call it a night, as we had a long drive to Seville the next day.

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By the old bridge at Embalse del Atazar

If we had a crystal ball and knew how our time in Madrid was going end up, we certainly would have spent another couple days. As Marcos advised – “In Spain, don’t make plans!” Until next time, our new-found friends.

Our Stark Perspective (Tips) –

  • Entrance to Royal Palace is free after 4:30 everyday (although it may be unexpectedly closed for a private event)
  • Avoid Calle de la Cruz late at night. It’s filled with young drunk kids and promoters trying to get you into their bar/club. Also many places charge a cover.

 

Valencia – Fresh Oranges and Fireworks

After extensively exploring Barcelona for two weeks it was time to head south for some more sun and Spanish experiences. A quick train ride brought us to Valencia where were immediately greeted with festive locals, decorated streets, and the sweet smell of oranges. Fallas (their festival of Fire) was just about to start and the town was getting ready. At every corner block, small children were throwing poppers and setting off fireworks designed only for the loud BANG! Initially we were completely caught off guard by each explosion, but after the first hour of it being such a regular occurrence the noise began to fade into background.

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Inside the Plaza de Toros

Hungry from our travels but with nothing open for dinner yet, we wandered through the old town and found ourselves on the edge of El Carme. Just inside the modern market place Mercado de Mosen Sorell appeared a wine bar and we quickly headed for the counter. Vinostrum is part wine shop, part wine bar where you can browse from their selection of regional wines and enjoy a bottle at one of their barrel high tops or small counter. A wonderful atmosphere and not yet too crowded, we were able to interact with the chef as she prepared our regional tapas.

IMG_4934 (1)While we had had many little cured fishes in Barcelona the preparation of Vinostrum’s sardines – being slightly smoked while on top of a thick breadstick like cracker with tomato chutney and olives – was extraordinary. Other memorable nibbles included incredibly flavorful canned baby squids which had been stuffed with rice and their own tentacles and topped with lemon crème and an olive oil cured Manchego that was so balanced and seemed to melt in your mouth. By the time we left the place was packed and the lone chef was frantically trying to keep up with the demand. (Vinostrum 2.0 recently opened right outside the door and offers a slight variation to menu items). A great stop and a wonderful first taste of the region.

Rain immediately moved into the area so we were “forced” to dodge in and out of bars while waiting for our dinner reservation at 9:00PM. At each stopped we sampled their offerings  – one, a spreadable chorizo warmed and served with melted manchego, the other goat cheese a la plancha or flash grilled on a cooktop so that a nice crust formed. Both surprising and equally tasty.

It was finally time for dinner and our first taste of Paella in the city in which it originated. 9:00PM was the first reservation available at La Riuà, a restaurant which has been around for decades and is well known to serve the authentic preparation of the dish. Inside, the walls were COVERED with framed photographs, awards, and ceramic dishes and the lights so bright I felt like I was in a doctor’s office. Immediately we order the Valencian Style Paella (served with chicken, rabbit, and large green beans) knowing we had a long wait ahead of us. Traditional Paella is a dish not to be rushed, as it generally takes about 45 minutes to cook. The large pan finally comes to the table around 10:00PM, piping hot and cooked to perfection. Completely satisfied – although not blown away – you could tell the preparation hasn’t changed at all since the day they opened.

The next day was our day to explore the city. We headed to old town, as you do in every European city, to wander the maze of small streets bursting with history. Our first stop was Mercat Central. Like with every other city in Europe, the market is the hub of daily life, social interactions and a window into the area’s culture. At Mercat Central, the patrons and the products were very diverse, ranging from locals shopping for the day, restaurateurs splurging on that leg of jamon, or tourists looking to purchase little authentic trinkets. After many a trip to the local markets in various cities, we honestly feel this was the best one we had visited – large enough to have a great selection of just about everything but not over run with tourists just trying to get a picture of the “strange” regional items.

DSC00447 (1)In conversation with the chef at Vinostrum about cheese, she told us about a stand in the market, Solaz, in which they purchase all of their cheese from. We had to make a stop and purchased what looked like a Spanish style boucheron (a French goat cheese that is gooey on the outside while still fresh and creamy in the center). To our disappointment it was not as good as we were hoping, however the selection of cheese was phenomenal and the stand absolutely stunning – if you are a cheese lover such as myself. We paired this cheese with probably the best cured little salami we have ever tasted from one of the many Jamon shops in the market.

Upon leaving the market we happened to stumble upon the daily Mascletà en la plaza del Ayuntamiento. At 2:00PM everday leading up to and during Fallas, this 7 minute gun powder explosion of “varying” tempos excites the locals, filling the nearby streets. A little shaken and quite possibly a little deaf we headed off in search for lunch, taking in the exquisite ancient building which have been preserved so well. Tucked away in a small square in El Carme was Taberna El Olivo, a small local cash only tapas bar.  Seating is outdoors under a big olive tree and their menu is written solely on a chalkboard (a true sign of the type of place we want to eat). We ordered, among other things, the whole Sepia al la Planca and I must say, this may be one of the best dishes we had our entire time in Spain. Cooked to absolutely perfection and dripping with a garlicy herb oil, we instantly devoured the plate, both fighting for the last bite. During our meal we were fortunate enough to strike up a conversation with a couple next to us, Marcos and Anna visiting from Madrid, and spent the rest of the afternoon talking over coffee and wandering the nearby streets. That evening kicked off the local celebration of Falles with the Mascletà de colores taking place at 12:00 midnight. The streets were filled with people out eager to see such a wonderful display, unlike any I’ve seen in the states.

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There are two great things to do on a beautiful day in Valencia – Head to the beach and a walk through the park towards La Cuidad de las Artes y las Ciencias. We were lucky enough that the one rainy evening was followed by two beautiful and much warmer days. Heading to the eastern side of town, the beautiful city park is filled with gardens which lead way to the amazing modern structures by Santiago Calatrava and Félix Candela which seem to defy the laws of architecture. Many of the structures are filled with wonderful museums which can be quite costly to enter but you cannot miss the opportunity to just walk around and revel in their beauty.

Our first 80 degree day on this trip (and our last day in Valencia) called for a little bit of beach time! Upon arriving to the port, we were greeted with a HUGE beach and a small strip of restaurants and chain shops. In some spots the sand seemed to extended 200 meters before touching the waters edge. Since the shops and restaurant selection at the port was very limited and slightly depressing, we took a walk down the boardwalk to soak up the sun in hopes we would come across another “commercial” pocket. Along the pathway that seemed to extend for miles, a few beach cafes were scattered but overall a very limited selection along the waters edge. Just a block off the beach, what was once the fishing village is beginning to breathe new life as the younger crowds moves in to revitalize it. It is here where you can get the famous Valencian café Cremaet, an EXREMELY strong and sweet expresso mixed with a local liquor. Getting more sun than our winter skin had had in months, it was time to weave through the old fishing village before heading back into town.

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The Beach in Valencia

A recommendation from a friend (and nearly ever guide on where to eat near the water) brought us to Casa Montana, a couple blocks away. Sitting in the bar side (to our surprise there are two very different sides of the restaurant) is certainly the way to go for a much more laid back atmosphere. Wine barrels piled to the ceiling were filled with their house vermouth and wine, and antique bull ring posters lined the walls. We felt we had stepped into a saloon in the wild west. A completely unique and enjoyable experience to round out our long weekend in Valencia.

Our Stark Perspective (Tips)

  • Traveling by Bus is the only way to get around the main part of town. Their Subway lines stay around the perimeter of the main center and stops are not that close.
  • Don’t miss a stop into the Estacio del Nord train station (depending on how you arrive). The interior is covered with beautiful mosaics!
  • As far as the local food specialties go –
    • Try the horchata (a nutty drink made of tiger nut served cold) but skip the farton. They are just flavorless white breadsticks with sugar on top.
    • The pumpkin fritters, bunyola de carabassa, are delicious but make sure you get them fresh out of the fryer!
    • There are a million stands set up on the streets serving churros con chocolate. The chocolate is thin and not very good. Stick to churros covered in chocolate instead.
  • Eat the oranges! At 1€ for a kilo, you cannot go wrong and they are amazing!
    • Save some money and press your own juice instead of buying from the market and shops
  • Stay in La Gran Via District. We discovered this amazing little area one day and it was by far the best area in the city. Close walking proximity to all the major areas but full of charm and character. Streets were filled with all types of restaurants and a great tapas market, Mercado Colon.
  • Head to Pobles Del Sud, the lagoon to the south of the city, if you happen to have an extra day for a trip outside the city.
    • This is supposedly the area where all the “Best Paella in Valencia” can be found.

Cadaques – The Pearl of Costa Brava

In an effort to get out of Barcelona for a day and explore the area, we rented a car and headed north towards Cadaques, a tiny little fishing village near the French border.

No trip for a Chef that far north would be complete without a trip out to El Bulli (which closed in 2011). After 30 mins of a one lane road, zigzagging through ancient olive groves we arrive to the secluded location and single driveway of what was once El Bulli. Much to our surprise, the building is now a total construction site, as it in being transformed into a foundation space for ElBulli1846. A meaningful stop for the Chef, not to mention breathtaking scenery.

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The construction site of ElBulli1846

Another good chunk of time twisting through old olive groves, we descend on the little town of Cadaques. This quaint white and blue town, a calm harbor at its center with soft lapping Mediterranean waves reaching its tiny shores, is a place one only imagines to exist. Again, many shops and restaurants were closed, but it was still such a wonderful place to wander the streets. You could tell why the Spanish locals have chosen this town to call home – it just felt different than any other coastal town.

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View of Cadaques from the harbor

A quick hike from the harbor over a STEEP hill brings you to Portlligat and the home of famous painter Salvador Dali. His house is extraordinary and so unique. Expanded on in multiple stages, it still only includes one bedroom. In the yellow room, a mirror was installed at such an angle so that the sunrise light would come through and be dispersed throughout. His décor included many taxidermy animals including a polar bear that greats you at the front door and the head of a rhino. From his studio, the view overlooking the small inlet was absolutely gorgeous, it’s no wonder he spent most of his time there. Upon wandering around the grounds, the exterior is just as impressive. Paths lead you through an olive grove and down to the water’s edge. The pool area was fit for entertaining and so interesting! A hodgepodge of stuff but the work of a genius.

Given the long drive back to Barcelona a head of us, we made a quick stop at the Boia Bar right on the harbor. This small bar/restaurant with a deck directly at the water’s edge, was easily the busiest location in town. (We would later find out this is the summer home to that famous cocktail master from El Bulli we met in Barcelona the next evening). After a couple of El Bulli and Adria brother influenced tapas, it was time to leave this sweet little fishing village knowing we would return again someday.

A couple of tapas is not enough for dinner so we stopped in Girona for something more substantial (after hearing high praises of the city from family friends who had just visited). Having no idea where to go, we headed towards the historic district and stumbled upon Plaça del Vi 7 – a little wine bar. It turned out to be the perfect stop with great food, great atmosphere, and even better wine. (When in doubt – always choose the small wine bar!) The city vibe in Girona was wonderful and you could tell there was so much more to be discovered – another spot added to the must return list!

Our Stark Perspective (Tips)

  • If you have a little bit of extra time, save money on tolls by staying off A7. Take N-11 or C-32 instead (when it doesn’t huge the coastline).
  • When visiting the smaller towns – try to go after the first week of March and avoid Sundays or Mondays.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask locals for recommendations! We found out about Manel from the guy at Dali’s house.
  • When in Cadaques, dine at Compartir if you can. The mastermind of El Bulli’s 3 sous chefs and highly recommended (we did not know about it, until after our visit north).