Tuesday, January 27, 2015

markets, tapas and fresh seafood

Our travel is generally influenced by our stomachs. Yes, there are places that are beautiful and worth going to several times but if the local food is not good then we tend not to go back. Croatia was a good example. There were some picturesque places that we loved such as Split and Dubrovnik but we were so disappointed in the food that we doubt very much that we will return.
Spain on the other hand has good fresh simple food at really affordable prices. To go into the fish market at Cadiz and not be able to smell that horrible fishy smell you get from the fish section at some supermarkets is incredible.
 The variety of shell fish was amazing. The other incredible thing was that there were about 50 stalls selling what appeared to be the same products yet some stalls would have a queue of people waiting to buy and others were dead quiet. Obviously the locals have their favourites and know which ones sell the freshest produce.
The fruit and vegetable sections are a riot of colour with all sorts of produce and remarkably cheap prices. When we first went to Europe the markets only had fresh, seasonal locally grown produce so you were assured that if there were tomatoes they were rich, ripe and flavoursome and strawberries were sweet and succulent. These days with the EEC there is a greater variety of fruit and vegetables but they aren't necessarily locally grown or as ripe, especially in the supermarkets. Farmers market are still the best bet for fresh produce.
fresh artichokes

yummy Strawberries
how cheap are the clementines!!!
Spain is known for its tapas bars. There are the traditional ones that still give you free tapas when you have a drink - this may be just some home pickled olives or some slices of chorizo. These are usually frequented by elderly locals popping into the bar to hear the local gossip and chatting to their mates. Then there are the tapas bars that have created a niche from being inventive with their fare, catering more to the tourist market. Some of these are good and expensive, others are expensive and not so good then there are the ones that have developed a name for themselves amongst the expat community which serve a different style of tapas at a reasonable price. One such place was recommended to us by an Irish couple that we met on a walk in Puerto Banus. They steered us clear of the more expensive places catering to tourists. One of the tapas bars they recommended and that we visited several times was Funky Tapas. Owned by an expat this little bar is perfect on a sunny winters day. We sat out on the terrace for about 4 hours drinking dry verdeljo and eating our way through a variety of tapas such as soft poached egg rolled in Dukka on a bed of hummus or a crispy mediterranean fishcake with mustard mayonnaise. We finished off with a mini creme brûlée made in a liqueur glass with just a small amount of burnt sugar. This was actually better because it wasn't too sweet.
Another great tapas meal was encountered in a small bar on the route between Barcelona and Marbella. It was a tiny roadside cafeteria attached to a petrol station. Next door was a big restaurant that was busy with Saturday lunch and looked a bit more upmarket but we opted for the more casual meal. The staff didn't speak any English and we didn't speak any Spanish but several plates of food had just been delivered to a group at one of the tables. It looked delicious so we pointed to it and indicated we would have the same. Out came the obligatory home pickled olives - very bitter (maybe needed longer brining) and then our order appeared. Deep fried calamari and the most amazing prawns in what looked like empanada batter. They were so fresh and absolutely delicious - we ordered another one. We then had the Spanish version of creme caramel to finish off - and all for under €10.

Cadiz - the oldest city in Spain

Cadiz foreshore
Cadiz was originally named Gadir by the Phoenicians when they founded their trading post in 1100BC. Since then Cadiz has been inhabited by Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths and Moors. All of these cultures have had some impact on the town but there is much more evidence in the architecture of the moorish heritage. Cadiz is situated on a peninsula which made it particularly advantageous as a base for Spain's navy. This is the port that Christopher Columbus sailed from on his second and 4th voyages to the New World. It was also where Sir Francis Drake burnt the Galleons of the Spanish Armada. This became known as "singeing the King of Spain's beard".
Cadiz cathedral plaza
In the James Bond film "Die Another Day", many sights of Cadiz were used as supposedly Cuban towns, beaches and the castle in Cadiz was use as a DNA replication clinic.
Fort used in James Bond movie

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

White hill towns, Andalucia

Arcos de la Frontera
While the big resorts and apartment blocks have multiplied along the beaches of the Costa del Sol and swallowed the traditional fishing villages, the hill towns have basically remained as they were hundreds of years ago. It seems the locals have once again taken to the hills. In days gone by, being in the hills afforded them some protection from marauders, Barbery pirates and the like. These days they are in the hills to protect themselves from another invasion - tourists and golfers! This time, however, they have taken advantage of the situation and provided the more intrepid tourist with something to spend their money on.
Main street of Benahavis
Bridge separating the moorish side from the "new" town of Ronda
Windy streets, pokey little shops, small bars and eateries and plenty of lime washed buildings are the hallmark of these towns. Some have capitalised on the fact that they are close to the tourist resorts and have a lively restaurant area, such as Benahavis. This is a relatively small town full of quaint charm and some really good restaurants hidden from the main thoroughfare. Ronda, on the other hand, is further away, up a very winding steep road, but quite large, with the "modern" town on one side of the bridge and the old Moorish one on the other side of an impressive canyon and bridge. The modern side is the main shopping hub while the old side has typical narrow streets, big churches and hotels and restaurants full of character and charm. Grazalema, close to Ronda through a grove of cork trees, is just small - but full of charm and a lovely place to spend a relaxing afternoon drinking Sangria and eating tapas at a local bar while overlooking the church plaza. Afterwards a stroll through the streets can lead you to boutique shops selling local produce such as olive oil and cheese.
Above Torremolinos, of James Mitchener fame, is the hill town of Mijas. This is still quite touristy but has a charm that has been kept alive by such things as donkey (burro) led carts and also donkey rides up the relatively steep slopes of the town. Mijas also has an amazing view of the coast, highlighting the number of apartment blocks that has sprung up along the coast in the last 30 years.
Estepona and Marbella from Manilva

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Enough of the cold - let's head somewhere warmer

So that is what we did and after a very long drive over 2 days - nearly 2000kms- we are now on the Costa del Sol in Spain. And it has certainly lived up to its name. Our first week here has been blessed with sunshine every day. Not necessarily hot but with clear blue skies it does make you feel warmer. We are staying in a relatively new 2 bedroom apartment in a beach side complex. This is only one of about a few hundred thousand apartments that clog this part of the coast. I would hate to be here in the height of the season. It would be a seething mass of humanity with no space on the beach or in the carparks. Way over commercialised.
On our headlong hurtle here we did come across a few sights that were worth stopping for. It also gave us an opportunity to stretch our legs. The Millau (pronounced meeow) Aqueduct is a masterpiece of engineering. This bridge across the Tarn Gorges, at a height of over 300m, is about 2.5km long. It was completed in December 2004.  More facts and figures  here. Apparently early in the morning there is often a mist in the valley and the bridge appears to float. Fortunately, when we went across the cloud was only at one end so we could at least see most of the bridge. On one side of the bridge the temperature was 11C - on the other side on the downhill run , the temperature had risen to 18C. We were definitely on the road to warmer weather!
While we had three drivers and could have driven all the way through we decided to stop for the night at Tarragona, south of Barcelona. We arrived late at night and had to leave early the next morning but it is definitely worth a second look. It has a rich Roman history some of which are UNESCO heritage listed.
As we got closer to Marbella, the temperature continued to rise. Even in the mountains, before entering Malaga, at a height of over 1100m the temperature was 20C. We hoped this was an indication of what the next month was to hold.
Apartment complex
Mediterranean and Estepona 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Quaint villages in the Ile de France

While being close to Paris is convenient for travelling by public transport to see the sites, museums and just wander around the streets of Paris, it also means we have the opportunity to visit some lovely little villages in the Ile de France region. Some of them I have already mentioned such as Giverny, Auvers sur Oise and Rouen.
Fellow bargees from New Zealand, that we have met since arriving in France, are wintering in the delightful village of Moret sur Loing. This picturesque village inspired painters such as Monet, Renoir and Sisley. The town is also known for its barley sugar, apparently a secret recipe developed by the benedictine nuns in the 16th century. Needless to say these days that connection is exploited for the tourism industry.
We had a delightful lunch in a very old restaurant/bar just outside the old town walls. It was obviously a popular spot with many locals eating here as well - but then that could have been because there weren't too many other places open!!

On our journey back to Paris we decided to take a slight detour into Fontainebleau and visit the gardens next to the chateau. This gave us a different view from the usual.

Not far from us on the Oise river is the village of L'Isle Adam. I am sure we will revisit this town on our barge once spring arrives but it was a pleasant 20 minute drive (apparently 3 or 4 hours by boat!!). We also savoured one of the best pain au chocolat here as well.
The little mermaid gives an indication of water levels on the Oise River. If she is no longer visible then the island (visible in the photo behind the mermaid) and the Place de Patis will flood. This has happened several times in the last 20 years.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Our first cold Christmas (updated)

This was our first northern hemisphere Christmas and both the boys were able to join us in Paris to celebrate. Michael flew in from Perth to stay for 3 months and Ryan flitted across the ditch to stay for two weeks. We were really looking forward to having both the boys with us and to experience the Christmas markets and the traditional Christmas dinner in a temperature more conducive to eating roast turkey with all the trimmings.
Plenty of ham knuckles on display
Well we certainly got our fair share of the Parisian Christmas markets with Kevin and I visiting them on the Champs Elysees 4 times. Not that we actually bought anything on the stalls apart from food and mulled wine. Mulled wine is perfect for this cold weather but it really takes your breath away with the warm spices coupled with the alcohol. Ham is really big over here but it is not like the ham we get back home where you can glaze it. The jambon here is like proscuito so it is difficult to eat a lot. We actually bought a whole leg at the supermarket but couldn't eat it all as it was so salty. So we ended up giving it one one of our French boating neighbours for their dog. they thought we were crazy throwing away such a "delicacy".


Markets in front of Cathedral
We also went to the Christmas markets at Rouen - not specifically for the markets but as a pleasant day trip. It is the capital of Upper Normandy and is famous as being the town was Joan of Arc was executed (burnt at the stake). They now have a memorial to her in the old part of town. The Gros Horloge is an astronomical clock dating back to the 16th century, though the movement is considerably older (1389)
Gros Horlage

Giant snow dome under the Eiffel Tower
The other thing that is done really well in the northern hemisphere is the Christmas decorations on the street. Each town tries to out do its neighbour and each shop gets into the festive mood with amazing decorations.

Father Christmas Flies above the Champs Elysees

Skating rink near the Place de la Concorde
Christmas lights

The upside down Christmas tree in Galeries Lafayette is particularly good and is a drawcard to the store, along with the outdoor viewing gallery at the top of the building