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Barcelona…city of exceeded expectations

There is something about traveling to a place that meets or exceeds expectations.  This often occurs when you visit someplace new, someplace that perhaps you have not heard much about or researched.  It is a rare occurrence when a place that you have really wanted to visit, spent hours researching and dreaming about blows your expectations out of the water.  This happened in Barcelona.

       

Barcelona has been at the top of my “to visit” list since 1992.  This was long before I had ever left the U.S., long before I was able to travel as much as I do now.  I have, pretty much as long as I have remembered, wanted to visit Barcelona.  Barcelona hosted the Olympics in 1992.  These games were when I fell in love with the Olympic movement and with it the city of Barcelona.  The pictures from the streets of Barcelona, combined with the compelling stories from those Olympics made me a fan of the Olympics for life and ensured that I would eventually get to Barcelona during my world travels.  This opportunity came this summer.

                    

Everything about the city met or exceeded my expectations.  The weather was fantastic (especially after the heat of Madrid), the food was amazing, less expensive and more delicious than elsewhere in Spain, the sangria was refreshing, the shopping was extensive, though expensive, museums were interesting and the architecture stunning.  All in all it was everything that I want in a city.
   

Throughout our time there my favorite activity was simply to wander the streets, stumbling upon hidden alleys in the Gothic Quarter, delicious restaurants throughout the city and even an occasional historical site.  We took a self guided tour of sites from Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, to give us a bit more perspective on one of our favorite books.  We stopped many times a day for a beer, sangria, wine, tapas and other delicious food, walking more than enough in between to work up an appetite.  We even made it to the places I first fell in love with back in 1992, the venues from the Olympics.

           

Barcelona was a great place to end our time in Spain, a city that not only lived up to high expectations, but exceeded them.

The life of luxury

Over the last year I have spent more and more time trying to figure out the loyalty program game. This has included hours of research online, subscriptions to blogs, time spent in online forums such as flyertalk and applying for credit cards simply for the sign-up bonus. This effort has swelled my mileage accounts, gained me elite status on United Airlines and has allowed me to travel in a bit more comfort. Starwood hotel chain recently ran a promotion that awarded a free stay at any of their resorts after every three stays at any of their hotels. To take advantage of this, I made bookings at as many Starwood hotels as I could while in Belgium and Croatia. I earned two nights which I redeemed at the Marques de Riscal Winery and Hotel in Spain. I have stayed at some nice hotels this year, but this was the best so far.

Upon approach, what really makes Marques de Riscal stand out is the stunning architecture. The hotel was designed by Frank Gehry, the designer of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum and the Walt Disney Music Hall in Los Angeles. Gehry designed buildings stand out with their sweeping lines and use of titanium and other reflective metals in their outer shells. The hotel is set amidst the winery and the vineyards, just across the road from the small town of Elciego. The colors that he used are designed to look like a Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva bottle of wine, purple (wine), silver (foil seal) and gold (mesh net that graces the bottles to keep counterfeiters at bay).

While the architecture is what first strikes your eye, our stay was defined by the helpful service and hospitality shown by the entire staff. Because we didn’t have a car, we were “stuck” at the hotel, enjoying the sun, sitting out at the spa, taking the complimentary winery tour, relaxing and partaking in the fantastic cuisine. Breakfast on the outdoor patio overlooking the vineyards was a highlight, as was the 8 course tasting menu we had at the restaurant.  Our meal started off with a cheese and truffle stuffed cracker soaked in honey and served on a river stone.  The cheese cracker might have been my favorite dish of the meal, the sweet and savory characteristics were in perfect balance.  This was followed up by croquettes which were fantastic. (no pictures).  The last of the appetizers was a foie gras cone, topped with grape caviar.The first of three main dishes was langoustine lobster in a white garlic sauce.  Simply delicious. Second up was Hake, candied in butter which was very rich and finally veal cheek which was not my favorite but still good.

Deserts featured an apple and honey ice cream dish that even for my palette may have been too sweet and finally chocolates.  To finish the meal, the sommelier came around with a tray of herbs to make us a custom infusion, featuring chocolate mint, a very sweet herb that we missed the name of and some lemongrass.  This was a great way to finish a meal that left us feeling very stuffed.

While the food was the major highlight, the rest of the stay left us feeling bathed in luxury.  The spa featured a pool, sauna and jacuzzi as well as massages that featured grapes such as a merlot seed scrub and grape oil massage.  It was the perfect place to sit out in the sun and relax before heading to Madrid and Barcelona.  If you are ever in the Rioja region, this hotel is a must visit.  It is pricey, but the food, surroundings, and staff make it worth it.   If you can, however, do it for free as part of a promotion you may want to find a way to get to Rioja to experience the life of luxury at Marques de Riscal.

Madrid

Two weeks in Spain is simultaneously a lot of time to explore a great country and not nearly enough.  While planning, we knew that we wanted to fit in a lot; see the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, run with the bulls in Pamplona, spend a lot of time in Barcelona, visit Rioja, one of the predominant wine regions in Spain and of course visit Madrid.  But why Madrid?

Ok, I know that it is the capital of Spain, has some world famous museums and is known for fantastic food, but throughout the planning of the trip I kept my attention more on the other parts of Spain.  The day we arrived in Madrid I was a bit out of sorts because I had no expectations, good or bad for Madrid.  I had no plans of what I wanted to see, which is highly unusual for me.  One of my favorite things about travel is the planning, the expectation that goes along with a visit to someplace different from home.  In fact, expect to hear more about the planning process sometime in the near future about my next adventure.

Back to Madrid.  We hit the main sights, the large Prado, filled with art that is skillful, but not really my artistic preference, had numerous good (though more expensive than I expected) meals, had a day trip to Toledo, saw the opulent Royal Palace, and even caught El Rastro, the Sunday flea market that takes over a whole section of the city.  Each of these things were fantastic, so why didn’t Madrid win me over?  The argument can be made that I didn’t want to be won over, but I don’t think this is really the case.  I tried to love it.  Really.  I think what got in the way was my fond memories of what we had already experienced on the trip and the anticipation and expectation of what was still to come.

So…Am I crazy?  Do you love Madrid?  What are the charms that I missed out on?

Do you also forget to fully experience the here and now on vacation? Either by looking forward or comparing it to something that has come before.

It was still a beautiful place, perhaps I will need to revisit to give it another shot.

Eating my way around Europe

The summer of travel has come to an end.  It was a fantastic trip that I will continue to relive here for the next few months. One of my favorite things about travel is sampling the unique cuisine that each place has to offer.  Three of my favorites this summer come from Croatia, Belgium and Spain.

Croatia – Geography lent a hand to Croatian cuisine. Located just over the Adriatic from Italy, many Italian flavors are also found in Croatia.  Location helped, but sitting outside, overlooking the Adriatic in Split I ate one of the best pizza’s I have ever had. While I feel odd ordering pizza while traveling, I felt justified given that it is essentially local cuisine here.  Nothing fancy, nothing special, just a well made pizza with fresh ingredients that hit the spot on a warm summer afternoon.

Belgium – I loved the food of Belgium, in fact, I could get used to eating waffles, french fries and Belgian Beer for pretty much every meal, especially the waffles and beer. The waffles come in multiple versions, but my favorite are the Liege waffles that are made with pearl sugar that caramelizes inside the waffle. Each bite has a sweet taste that makes for great snacking. Strawberries, chocolate, ice cream, cherries and numerous other topping are available if you feel that your waffle needs an extra boost but most of the time I was content with just the plain waffle.

Even though many Germans, Irish and others would disagree, I believe that Belgian beer is in a different league from the beers of the rest of the world. I visited the Cantillion brewery, home to one of the last breweries that still uses spontaneous fermentation (use of wild yeasts that offer a somewhat less predictable end product) in their brewing process. Cantillion specializes in Lambic beers. These often feature fruity flavors, raspberry (framboise) and cherry (krieke) are two common flavors, but the winner for me at Cantillion was the Gueuze. Gueuze is made by blending different aged Lambics together which forms a brew that is tart and acidic, very refreshing and often compared to sparkling wine.  It is simply delicious.

Spain – It has been 12 years since I had my first taste of Spanish food and over that time it has become one of my favorite cuisines.  I had been looking forward to my first trip to Spain for many reasons, but perhaps the biggest was to taste sangria, paella, tapas and jamon in the land that created them. Spain did not dissapoint.  While this trip did not bring me to Valencia, the home of Paella, we still did manage to find some good paella in Madrid.  The highlight however, was the sangria.  We rarely left an establishment without trying their sangria.  These cups ranged from small to large, good to fantastic.  Only once did I have a glass that I would not go back for and this was at a place that was trying to kick us out so they could close, keeping love and care from this glass.  The best was had at a bar in Pamplona the night before running with the bulls.  It was sweet and fruity, with a great balance of flavor and just enough kick to remind you that you were drinking alcohol.  Forced to drink this for the rest of my life, I don’t think I would argue. 

The tapas were fantastic, especially various iterations of goat cheese on bread and patatas bravas (spicy potatoes).  Many a night was spent going from one bar to another to compare what each had to offer.  It made for full but happy stomachs.  The final highlight was jamon or Spanish ham.  The ham in Spain is nothing like the cold cuts I had on sandwiches back in grade school.  The ham in Spain is serious business.  For the most expensive (over 200 euro per kilo) the pigs are allowed to eat all of the acorns  they want before a long smoking process.  Less expensive (being a relative term here) ham was fantastic, full of flavor and texture.  Shop after shop featured these hams hung from the ceiling, just tempting shoppers to come in and sample the wares.

Many other meals were spectacular but perhaps because of my expectations before the trip these three experiences remained the most memorable.

**For other food related blogging check out the posts from my awesome sister at her blog pomelosunshine.com**

Images from Belgium

Running with the Bulls

Dressed all in white, adorned with only with flashes of red; a sash around our waists and a scarf around our neck, hundreds of us congregate early in the morning.  Many of us stayed up all night, sipping sangria and nibbling on tapas making sure that we get the full San Fermin experience. I have done the research, I have seen with my own eyes the day before just what to expect, but still I pace back and forth filled with nervous energy, eager to face the challenge, eager to run.

At 7:00a the bars along the route start to close, spectators start to fill the gaps along the fence and those of us that are running begin to find our way to our chosen spots. We still have an hour before the run begins.  I spend this hour walking back and forth to make sure the spot I have chosen is the best one.  I nervously try to read the Spanish language newspaper I have purchased to roll up in case I need to distract the bulls during the run.  This does nothing to quell my nervous energy as the local paper is filled with photos from the run the day before.  Pictures of falls, the fastest run in the festival’s history and an unfortunate pantsing grace the pages of the Navarre Diario.  Time passes slowly. With a half hour to go the announcements start, warning us of the danger of running first in Spanish, then English, followed by French and finally German.  A few minutes later these are repeated and the spectators that have been keeping the runners company start to depart the course.

With five minutes to go the crowd and runners shush for silence.  The shrine to San Fermin has been placed, candles lit and the gates to the route have been closed.  As the rolled up newspapers are lifted into the air, It is time to sing.  The words drift from the front of the course, the locals that run this route every year lead the way with a few of the rest of us trying to follow along.  The words ask for safety from San Fermin and is repeated three time.  As the first time through comes to a close it is time to find my place.  I jog up the hill to the first corner, confident that I have chosen a sage starting point. Down the street, the song is repeated two more times as the sound of the first rocket draws ever closer.

Crack.  The rocket is fired high into the Pamplona sky and the bulls are off.  A few seconds later another crack sounds, signalling that all of the bulls are on the course.  Around me the runners jump up and down a few last times, ready to take off at the first sound of hooves.  A few of the people around me start to take off but it is a false start, the bulls are still a hundred meters away.

I take off around the corner as I first hear the stampede.  Turning around to see where the bulls are, a fellow runner runs into me, knocking my teeth around but we both maintain our footing.  A few meters later I again turn to see where the bulls are and am met with the sight of horns coming around the corner.  Time to go.  I take off, surrounded by other runners pushing to make sure we each stay out of the direct path of the bulls.  First the horns draw even with us, quickly followed by the bodies and then they are past.  I have run maybe 50 meters, been passed by the 12 bulls like I am standing still and live to tell the tale.

The day I ran with the bulls in Pamplona was the last running for the 2011 San Fermin festival.  It was done with no major injuries, just the usual bloody noses, scraped knees and scuffed palms.  I did not make a long run, but it was a rush, full of anticipation, adrenaline and the feeling of accomplishment.  Forever more I can say that I have run with the bulls in Pamplona…and survived.

The charm of Amsterdam

Amsterdam is one of the most famous cities in the world. It is a stop on almost every “grand tour” of Western Europe and has a lot to offer tourists. I found, however, that upon spending a few days in Amsterdam the real joy of the city is to simply be. There are so many hidden scenes waiting around the next corner that eventually, walking around (or biking) takes precedence over seeing the tourist sites. The Anne Frank House, markets, canals and museums are world class, but the daily life is what really sets this city apart as a destination where I could really spend a lot of time.

While the Dutch are not known internationally for their cuisine, the onset of a more globalized world has meant that more diverse flavors are creeping into restaurants in Amsterdam. The six days I had in Amsterdam were filled with great restaurants, highlighted by a delicious three course meal shared with my good friends Megan and Alfred who made the trip from Frankfurt, Germany to spend a few days with me in Amsterdam.  Accompanied by a great bottle of Austrian wine, the meal started off by a delicious starter of a whole roasted artichoke, was followed up by perfectly cooked duck and was finished off with a delicious vanilla ice cream sundae with raspberries, peaches and chocolate.  The food was refreshing, modern, pleasing to eat, stylishly presented and consumed with friends, in short, a perfect encapsulation of Amsterdam.

The other highlights of Amsterdam presented themselves in unexpected places.  The unique shop tucked in a stretch of residential buildings, the cafe with fantastic views of the canals, the quiet neighborhood and the delicious snacks found in a convenience store.  This was the most time I have spent in the land of my ancestors.  The more time I spent there the more I wanted to stay, finding the hidden charms, enjoying just being in this great place.

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