Okay, to refresh, we're in Italy AKA Italia, and we've been away from our fair Toronto for more than three months. It seemed like it was time for reflection on things we've encountered in different cities/countries and what I felt about them. You know me, I don't have too many opinions.
To recap, we've stayed in London (twice), Dublin, Galway, Tubercurry, Bundoran, Belfast, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Carstairs, Amsterdam, Brussels, Brugge, Paris, Lyon, Bedheilac, Barcelona, Madrid, Lisboa, Porto, Lagos, Mijas, Sevilla, Milano, Roma, Firenze, Padova, Napoli and we're (currently) on the train to Siena, then Bologna for New Years, Venezia, maybe Verona, back to London, Tel Aviv, maybe Greece, probably Amman (going to Petra) and back in February. Not that you asked, but I do like to share. I'm good that way.
So, let's see. First? Alcohol. We haven't had any real ale in London yet. That's on "tap" for our next go-through in a couple of weeks. Ireland? we went on a tour of the Guinness brewery at St. James' Gate, and the beer isn't going to get any fresher than that! But, beer in Ireland, along with a lot of others things is expensive. Five euros a pint easily. Beer was less expensive in Northern Ireland, but the selection was somewhat lacking. We also didn't find that Irish whiskey was as challenging/interesting as Scotch whisky. (Note the "e" in whiskey is dropped from Irish to Scotch, which could be part of the reason why Glaswegian is such a hard "dialect" of English to understand)
Scotland? WOW!!! The beer was cheap as borscht and DEE-LISH! Sadly, we couldn't get to BrewDog, but we did have some super sexy microbrews that were DYNO-MITE! For about two pounds ($4) a pint. The scotch? YUMMERS!!! Great tour at Glenmorangie, where we bought some wee bottles that were gone by Paris, but the tour at The Macallan wasn't quite as stellar. I think it had to do with the woman at Glenmorangie really enjoying what she did, and she fed off the interest and passion of the people on the tour, and the woman at The Macallan just doing a job. The scotch at The Macallan is worth going for, as they really do have some of the world's best. That we missed our appointment for the tutored tasting is one of the disappointments of our trip. But hey, s**t happens!
There is some great bottled beer to be had in the UK, Amsterdam and Belgium, but the quality drops off quite a bit in France, Spain, Portugal and Italy. It's not to say that you can't get some "good" beer, but there's not much GREAT beer to be had. The beer in Amsterdam was good, but nothing really stands out like Deuchars IPA or Belhaven's Best in Scotland. The France beer was particularly lacking in quality, but the inexpensive wine in the Pyrenees from Aldi (the German supermarket chain that owns Trader Joe's in the U.S.) is not to be scoffed at. VERY drinkable wine for one-to-two euros a bottle. 750 mL and sometimes 1 litre! Red was the preference, and has been along most of the trip.
The wine in Portugal was inexpensive, as it has been in Spain and Italy, and the port in Porto was HEAVENLY!!! Again, the tour at Taylor's was better than Calem, but one tour did a good job of filling in the blanks, or reinforcing a point/concept that was said at the first. The port/chocolate tasting at Kopke was really nice, and inspired more of the same back at our hotel.
Sherry in Jerez, Spain was an experience, as the Sandeman tour was a bit of a farce, and the Pepe Tio one was an adventure, but much better. Still, I'm not much of a fan of sherry, and wasn't much of a fan of French brandy (I prefer cognac) and Spanish brandy didn't move any more than the French has.
We haven't done a grappa or wine tour, though we're hoping to do both before we leave the country, but the wine has been PHENOMENAL!!! Again, red, but the prosecco has been very nice. ESPECIALLY in/on the first class cars while riding on our (now expired Eurail pass). FREE wine/prosecco is a perk that makes the ride that much better. Then again, so does the two or three euro bottle that gets opened with the Swiss Army "jack" knife, that has come in handy in the hostels we've been in. More on that later.
We hope to do some form of a wine tour in Israel, but we'll see about that.
So that's alcohol. I've been drinking a lot, that's for sure. But because it's not cheap to drink "out" in most places, we've been doing more buying of bottles (beer and wine) and having our drinks that way. I don't know that I've been "drunk" once. I've been legally intoxicated, but haven't been driving (other than the adventure(s) in Scotland and Spain), so I haven't had to worry about that.
Food. London: SPECTACULAR Bengali/Indian at Shampan (Thanks John Arvanitis!!!) and Jodi already knew about Wagamama, but HOLY COW! What a great place. Not to be missed. "Fast food", Asian fusion, relatively inexpensive and fun. 'Nuff said. The food in Dublin was pretty good, but not great. Galwasy was the Oyster Festival, and otherwise we ate a MASSIVE baked potato that was quite over-priced. But remember, everything in Ireland is expensive! Tubercurry was our WWOOF experience, and an "experience" it was. The food wasn't great, but hey, we didn't go hungry. LOTS of tea. If there's something we've learned, the English know how to make tea! For starters they boil the friggin' water, which my mom has always done. She probably learned from her Scotland-born mom.
Bundoran was an out-of-season seaside town, and I made some mean pan-fried trout on Jodi's suggestion. Belfast was a mish-mash of things, which included me making a pasta/salad that i didn't much like. Jodi said it was good, but maybe it's because we were sleeping in twin beds that she was feeling overly generous with compliments. I wonder if she was afraid of this becoming a sleeping habit, since she does dig the cuddling (WHO DOESN'T!?!?!) but doesn't dig the snoring.
Edinburgh was SUPERB fish 'n chips, but painfully disappointing salads, which is a theme that seemed to continue through much of the UK. They don't seem to place much emphasis on good raw veggies. Oh well. Live 'n learn. While the Scottish will (and do!) fry anything/everything, they do make some good food otherwise. Another GREAT curry experience in Glasgow at The Wee Curry Shop. So good, that I went twice. Once with Jodi, and once on my own, after the Hajj to Granny Grey Goose's (AKA Aggie Baggie AKA Grandma AKA Agnes Balfour nee McIntyre) first home. Which I'm not 100% sure I found, but the car was stolen/graffiteed and I wasn't jacked for my camera. So it was an overall success. Not to mention that I navigated from Carstairs to Shettlestone to Glasgow. On my own. (I'm currently patting myself on the back, with my damaged (?) left arm. I think it's from pickaxing in the Pyrenees. More on that later.)
Carstairs was Jamie...errr.....Alex's fine food. He made a tasty haggis and neeps, and I'm psyched to try to make haggis from scratch. When we're in our own place. Which we need to find, since we sold our place in Toronto. Alex & Zoe's place in Carstairs was fantastic. Great people, good fun, and they just got engaged. It's about time she made an honest man out of him. He loves Jamie Oliver (and even though a certain Brit living in the Pyrenees calls him a fat tongued f**ker, Jodi and I dig his style too!) and has some "fun" hair likes Mr. Oliver's.
Amsterdam and Paris were two cities were we didn't eat out much, but instead put the money into "culture". Museums and metro passes mainly. In fact, we didn't eat out in Paris, but for the baguettes we got daily around the corner from our apartment in Montmartre.
I don't remember much fantastic food-wise from Brussels and Brugge, but I do remember the tourist-trap restaurants in Brussels, pushing their mussels. The mussels in Brussels were good, but not great. Better than a Jean-Claude van Damme movie, that's fer sure!
Lyon was SPECTACULAR, thanks to Corinne, who took us out to dinner at a fantastic place called Les Olivier. SO GOOD! This was also when Jodi was recuperating from a bout of stomach issues, which started up again in Barcelona. Speaking of Barca, we didn't each much in Spain other than bocadillos (sandwiches) as we were trying to balance Jodi's stomach unhappiness with my need/desire for food. MUCH jamon and queso, AKA ham 'n cheese. BUT GOOD!!!! SOOOOOO VERY GOOD!!!
In Bedheilac, at the gite/B&B, we ate well. Lots of homemade yummy food. Between Jon, Deb, Joe (Joe's WORLD FAMOUS pasta!) and myself, there was no one going hungry. We were cooking and baking and eating dark chocolate and drinking red wine and working hard (sometimes) and having fun (most of the time).
In Portugal and Spain, there is a lot of fish to be had - well in the south of Spain - and we ate a lot of fish in Lagos and some in Porto and Lisboa. It's salty, but tasty. REALLY tasty. Simply prepared and inexpensive - along with the wine - at just about every restaurant we were in. The salads weren't much better in Portugal, but at least they were larger. MUCH larger, but with iceberg lettuce, tomato, onion, carrots and sometimes egg and tuna. Ugh with the egg and tuna, but hey, it's food. So I ate it. Canned corn too!
None of us were overly impressed with the food in the south of Spain, but this could have to do with the English and Germans who seem to own a lot of real estate. Hipercor, the grocery arm of El Corte Ingles (just for you Gitta!!!) is HUGE and tonnes of fun. If you like to grocery shop. Their Scotch was cheap too. Oh ya. If you're going to buy Scotch in Europe, go to Spain. For some reason it's cheaper than France, which is MUCH cheaper than Scotland. Taxes are the issue. A bottle of $200 Cardhu in Ontario is $50 (30 euros) in France and $35 (22 euros) in Barcelona. Generally speaking though, the selection is lacking.
Also, duty-free in Gatwick and Malaga weren't very good. Duty-free between Canada and the U.S. is VERY good, and I'm hoping that Heathrow's is as good as advertised by others. That said, because of the European Union, you can only buy duty free in Europe when leaving the E.U. Just an FYI.
The food in Sevilla wasn't super as Spanish cuisine, but we did have a very tasty (and annoyingly entertaining) meal with Wally & Gitta. We had some really good tapas in Marbella , disappointing tapas in Fuengirola and so-so tapas at El Plaza Mayor (an outlet mall with an enh Nike outlet).
Italia. Well....we've had SUPER pizza in Milano, ORGASMIC pizza in Napoli (we went back again because it was so good! 'A Pizzettata di Sandro e Peppe) and so-so pizza in Napoli. We've had feh risotto in Roma, and SPECTACULAR pasta in Roma (Ditirambo) and at 'A Pizzettata in Napoli (Gnocchi in a rose sauce). We haven't been looking much for salads, but their side veggies have been YUMMERS!!! Spinach, eggplant and escarole to name a few that come to mind.
Maya made a yummy Israeli curry in Padova, and I have now made my brownies in two countries on the trip. I think Israel is next. It's amazing how difficult/stressful it is to bake in someone else's kitchen. Corn syrup, cocoa, demerara brown sugar and baking powder are four ingredients I take for granted at home. Also, salted butter isn't always easy to find and not everyone has a Kitchen-Aid "mixmaster".
There has been a lot of panini (sandwiches) being eaten in Italy to go along with the pig 'n cheese theme established in Spain. In fact, it's very easy to eat carbs 'n meat 'n cheese with every meal here.
Speaking of meals, I would be remiss if I didn't mention coffee. The coffee, of which I am a big fan, has been REALLY wide in quality spectrum while away. Starbuck is a fave at home, but I do love to make a pot of drip coffee (I miss our old coffeemaker, but we'll get a new one when we're back. I hope that Em has been using it!) and enjoy it while doing whatever at home. Starbucks was a bit of a godsend in the UK, as BT (British Telecom) has a deal with them, that if you have a Starbucks card in good standing, that your WiFi is free at their locations. So, we bought one in the UK and one in Ireland, and we had WiFi if it wasn't where we were staying.
I don't miss the fact that I haven't had Starbucks in months. The coffee otherwise has been great. When it's percolated/brewed and not made with hot water and instant coffee. Homey don't play that!!! Caffe con leche in Spain is great, since they heat the milk, and I do love espresso, thanks to Sheila getting me on to it years ago at her parents' place in Bolton.
Sleeping. Hmmmm....there have been good and bad experiences, and just because hostelworld.com or booking.com says one thing, doesn't always mean it's the case. We have had better than expected experiences, like fresh/yummy pastries and coffee made for us in Napoli, great breakfasts and large rooms with great showers and bathrooms, and less-than-stellar experiences - musty rooms, noisy beds, tiny rooms, construction dust coming in, shared bathrooms, no toilet seats, flooding showers....
It's to be expected when you're traveling on a tight budget for 20 weeks.
People. If you're able to handle/enjoy Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, L.A., New York, you'll be fine in London and Paris. The only thing is that speaking (some) French comes in handy in Paris. Just as an FYI. Dublin and Galway had genuinely nice and helpful people, and what they say about the Irish and their charm and talking the craic ("crack") is VERY true. Belfast, because of it's long history of violence and religious/political issues was a place we were warned about, but it was GREAT! We met some great people and it was delighful. In a big city way.
I was psyched about Scotland and I wasn't let down. My enthusiasm for the country was evident/obvious and people picked up on it, which helped a ton. I loved Edinburgh and Glasgow, even if Glaswegian might as well be Swedish or Dutch as far as understanding what people are saying. The city is now employing translators to help native English speakers to understand what Glaswegians are saying. Now that's funny!
Amsterdam and Belgium were great, and the people were people. Not much to say. One thing I've discovered is that if you try to speak a few words in someone's native tongue, and ask if they speak English, you can usually figure out what you need to know. Even if it involves drawing pictures, writing down numbers/letters or miming.
Barcelona was a city that had us paranoid, as Jodi was robbed of her day bag 15 years ago, but like Madrid, it's a big city with charm. Like Paris or London I suppose, but with the edge of the fear of being pickpocketed.
The biggest surprise for me was how much I loved Portugal. I'm planning on going back there, as I consider it a "home", the way I do Toronto, Montreal, L.A., Chicago, New York and Scotland. I just belong there, because it feels "right". The people are fantastic! So helpful.
Italy's been interesting. GREAT people everywhere, especially the warm hospitality in Napoli with Andrea, and the way that people walk arm-in-arm and kiss like crazy. Guys, girls, men, women, kissing cheeks and making out like mad ALL OVER NAPOLI!!!! Napoli's a bit rough around the edges and chaotic, but an adventure.
I guess that's about it. I've been at this for an hour and I figure it's time to edit some photos. OH YA!!! Pictures. THOUSANDS of pictures. Some experimental, some planned. Some where I missed the shot(s) and some where I nailed it. Jodi's been doing a great job of finding more of a "photographer's eye" as the trip has gone along, probably having to do with spending more time with the D-SLR/Canon. She shot well before, but having more time, desire and better subject matter would seem to bring out the intangibles in most of us.
I've been shooting reflections, shadows, low-light for "movement" in the shot, urinals, bathroom signs and any manner of other nonsense that amuses me.
Transportation. Italians don't sign their Metro or train stations well. Ryanair was a rougher landing than Easyjet (but we still have an Easyjet flight to go!). Second-class trains in most countries are better than most Portuguese trains. Overnight trains aren't all their cracked up to be - EXCEPT for the breakfast coffee between Madrid and Lisboa. Don't automatically buy city passes for transit and museums until you're sure you're going to go to the sights AND they're open the days you want to go. Some countries aren't very diligent in checking tickets on the trains (Italy) or Metro (Napoli - open gates are GREAT, but the station employees who just wave you through and/or open closed gates for you when you either don't have a ticket or your ticket expired, are even better!) but it's a good idea to have them. Also, in Napoli, say you have the "Arte Card" but forget it in your room and you'll probably be able to travel for free.
Photos. No flash means no flash. That is unless you're everyone else who doesn't seem to know how to turn their flash off, or use their camera without a flash, in which case they just ignore the signs. No museum/gallery/church/sight seems willing to do anything about it, other than say, "No flash" or better yet (Sistine Chapel, are you reading this?) "NO PHOTO!!!" ('cause they want to sell postcards) UNLESS (that is UNLESS UNLESS UNLESS) the guard knows you, in which case you not only take a picture, but with flash no less. F**KIN' hypocrite jackasses.
Some people (Pompeii) thought it was a good idea to enter "NO ENTRY" zones to pretend they were back in ancient times. This is not only a foul idea, but a bad picture. Wearing modern clothes doesn't make you look like you're back in 79 AD. Maybe if you strip naked in the brothel and simulate a position shown on the wall. That might be a good shot! Otherwise, just stay on the "right" side of the barriers. After all, it's people like you that are destroying the art/monuments of the world.
It's not people like me, who take no flash shots of the Sistine Chapel, David and probably a few other famous things. Things that need to be shot and shared, so that people will continue to visit them and be in SHEER and UTTER AWE OF THEIR MAJESTY!!! Oh well, they probably need Saul Colt (AKA The World's Smartest Man - which isn't saying much since men are dumb!) to help them word of mouth marketing. http://wwww.saulcolt.com. Enh. Who am I kidding? The whole world knows about the Sistine Chapel and Michaelangelo's David. But the whole world doesn't know about the Cappuchin Crypt, so it's a good thing I shot that when i wasn't supposed to!
Oh ya, LET THE INGREDIENTS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES! This is something I've learned in Italy, and will practice when the ingredients are good enough to stand up on their own. Otherwise, they'll need layering of flavours.
That's it for now.