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Sangria…a Taste of Spain

November 21, 2011 1 comment

Prompt #20: DRINK – my eighth post in bootsnall’s 30 Days of Indie Travel project.

Just as the cuisine of a place reveals clues about its culture and history, so does its signature local drink. What’s the best drink you had on the road, and did the drink have any connection to the place where you drank it or the people you drank with?

Sangria.  There really is no question about it.  Sangria is so tied into the culture of Spain, so representative of this country.  Sangria is delicious, refreshing, light and a mixture of complex flavors, just like Spain.

I found Spain to be a refreshing break from “Old Europe”.  Not as proper as the British, by the book like the Germans nor as traveller adverse as the French.  There was a sense of history, an understanding of those that had come before but at the same time a great enjoyment of life.  It just seemed like the Spanish people were fully aware that they had a great country and were happy to share it with the world.

Spain has long been a meeting place for different cultures.  The Arabian scholars helped preserve many ancient texts here, ensuring that we would have these records of history at a time when many in the Christian church were trying to destroy them.  Over time this past has been combined with the strong Catholic influence, combining to make Spain.  That said, even when traveling to different parts of the country there is a clear differentiation between the regions.  Madrid is different from Basque country which is different from Catalonia.  While there are certainly tensions, they all come together to form Spain.  Sangria has this mix of flavors with sugar and fruit balancing the wine.  It just works.

While traveling through Spain, from Bilbao to Rioja to Madrid and finally to Barcelona, most afternoons were spent having a glass (or pitcher) of Sangria.  Sometimes hopping from tapas bar to tapas bar, just to sample the variations on this delicious drink as we were sampling the various experiences of this great country.

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Budget

Prompt #18: BUDGET – My sixth entry for the 30 days of Indie Travel series.

Every traveler has a budget; for some it just might be higher or lower than for others What’s your style? What do you spend very little on and what are you always willing to pay more for?

I am in a very fortunate situation. As an ex-pat, my company helps out with my housing expenses. How they have it set up, however, is that they have a flex account that can be used for a variety of expenses, including travel. I have a much less expensive house than many of my co-workers and as a result have a very large portion of my leisure travel paid for by my school. This, combined with spending more and more time working on getting the most out of loyalty programs has allowed me over the last year to travel at a bit higher standard than I have previously done. I have been working on gaining top-tier status for United and as a result have paid for most of my flights this year. I am collecting my miles and points so that I can continue to travel when I change jobs to one that does not cover as much of this as my current employer.

This year I have stayed at some really nice hotels. Some of these were splurges (Mala Mala Safari Lodge, Correntoso Resort in Argentina) while others have been through the use of points and promotions (Marques de Riscal Winery in Spain, Cape Town Westin). When choosing a hotel I want someplace that is in a good location. Wireless internet and a comfortable bed are pluses as well. But at the end of the day a hotel is a place to spend the night. If the trip is going well, I do not actually spend all that much time at the hotel, though it is always nice to come back to a luxury hotel.

One thing I am usually hesitant to pay for is transportation. I will often walk “just a little bit further” rather than take public transportation or get a cab. I feel that walking through a city is the best way to get a feel for the place, to understand the culture and vibe of the city. That said, I know I have spent a lot of time and energy walking instead of paying for a 3 or 4 euro subway fare. At the end of the day I am not sure if this strategy is worth it, but I continue to do it, even when spending the night at a luxury hotel.

Food is something that I do not mind spending a lot on. I enjoy a nice meal, especially if it is the local cuisine. I have gone out of my way to visit places with a well known restaurant usually with a price tag to match. That said, many of my favorite meals are those that I have had on the street, snacking on local fare at very low prices. When it comes to food, a higher price does not necessarily mean higher quality.

I like to think of myself as a budget traveler, but this is really not the case. I like the nicer things in life and especially when traveling I am not going to give up an experience or enjoyment to save a little bit of money…except when it comes to transportation which is just weird. I need to work on changing that and maybe cutting back in some other areas of my travel budget.

First Class

Thai First Class
Bangkok to Beijing (~5 hours)

Photo courtesy of CC license from Flickr user FlackJacket2010

This was my first experience in first class and it left me in awe of the difference between coach and first class but also feeling like the experience is not really for me.  I loved it, but I loved business class as well.  I don’t really see the point spending either frequent flyer miles or money for this level of exclusivity.  It was really, really nice, but not so much better than business class.  The seat was pretty much the same seat as I had in South African business class.  Plenty of room but to the point where even I really did not need that much.  The service was attentive to the point of almost being hovering.  They did seem to read clues well though, letting people rest or get work done if that is what was desired.  But what really set the first class experience apart though was the lounge and service on the ground in Bangkok.

Photo courtesy of CC license from Flickr user Richard Moross

Upon my arrival, I was met at the gate and transported to the First Class Lounge.  I informed the agent that greeted me (by name) that I wanted to take a quick shower and then have a massage that is complementary for First Class passengers.  The shower rooms were huge, way bigger than my bathroom at home and featured very soft towels and up scale amenities.  After more than 20 hours in the air, it was very nice to have the chance to rinse off.  The massage was also a great mid-travel treat, that helped relieve some of the aches in my back and was very relaxing.  After the massage was finished there were just a few minutes to sit in the lounge catching up on the news and quickly reading email before another agent came up to get me to walk me to my gate.  This level of personal service really was amazing and might have been even more enjoyable if I had not been traveling for as long as I had been already.

Once on board I was greeted with a very large seat, a set of noise canceling headphones and a glass of champagne.  It was really good champagne and when I asked what kind it was, the flight attendant responded with a…Dom Perignon of course.  Delicious!  I had more than a few glasses on the flights, savoring every sip.  While I would be hesitant to ever pay for the cost of a bottle, it was a step above most champagnes I have had.  I also made sure to sample the scotch, Johnnie Walker Blue Label which was amazingly smooth and quit delicious as well.  This jaunt in First Class is spoiling me and creating some expensive tastes. Drinking was not the only thing to consume, as we were treated to a five course meal.  The service was at a leisurely pace, taking up almost half of the flight.  By the end I was stuffed.  While it was not as good as some landside meals I have had, it was far and away the best in flight meal I have had, featuring scallops, foie gras, veal loin, soup, a selection of cheeses and very, very good deserts.  It was so much food that I was almost feeling uncomfortable by the end of the flight.  
Photo courtesy of CC license from Flickr user Richard Moross

This was a great experience and unfortunately ended with almost 30 minutes of waiting for a gate to open once we were on the ground.  Getting off first was nice, but unfortunately I was once again met with someone holding my name on a sign.  This time it was not to whisk me off to a special place, but instead to inform me that one of my bags had sprung a leak and was now wrapped in plastic.  It seems that one of the many bottles of wine I had bought in South Africa had been crushed (actually three of them).  I thought I had packed them well but clearly not well enough.  The only good thing was that it was bottles of white wine instead of red so while my clothes needed a wash, they at least were not completely ruined.

More stories to come from South Africa, but needless to say, I had more enjoyment flying than I normally do.  I hope that this experience did not spoil me too much for my next trip in coach. I really could get used to having leg room and better service on flights.

How I spent 1.5 hours…or 5 minutes…or 44 hours…or 20 hours in Hong Kong


The beginning of my trip to South Africa hit a rocky patch, or, as I believe I said at some point, very nearly did not happen.

When I had one and a half hours to spend there I was going to spend all of my time in the lounge, reading, catching up on odds and ends.  Sadly, due to a weather delay, I did not get one and a half hours in Hong Kong.  Instead, I had five minutes…

Which I spent franticly running to find my gate, only to find that there was no way to get there without a boarding pass which I did not yet have.  Instead, I ran to try to find someone to print me off a boarding pass for the flight that I was in the process of missing.  Needless to say, it did not happen.  I instead made my way to the Dragonair desk to figure out the next move.  The answer I got back after over an hour of searching was that there was nothing they could guarantee for 44 hours.  With only a week to spend in South Africa, this was not looking good.  There was, however, nothing much I could do.  The Typhoon had caused me to miss my flight by the narrowest of margins and since I was so far from Johannesburg there was really only one flight per day.  We checked all of the options, even checking some unusual routes (Hong Kong to Doha, Qatar to Dubai (20 minute flight) to Johannesburg).  No luck.  I had a guaranteed seat two days later and a hotel room offered by Dragonair who went above and beyond to find a solution to the problem.  I finally got to my hotel at around 3:30 in the morning, exhausted and frustrated that I was not on my way to South Africa yet.

I had 44 hours to spend in Hong Kong.  To fill the time I decided to do a few old favorites, and perhaps, if the weather cooperated visit Victoria’s Peak, one of the major destinations that I had never been to.  In my 44 hours I fit in all of my recommendations.  I ate, shopped and wandered my way around Hong Kong.  I also, around 7:00 on Saturday night, made my way to the airport to see if I could get on that night’s flight to Johannesburg.  I got to the airport about 4 hours early to get my name on the list.  Things did not look good, but I had to give it a shot.  I was first on the list.  The next three hours passed agonizingly slowly.  Waiting to find out if I still had another day in Hong Kong or if I could get on the flight that night.  At 10:30 I was told that while business class (what my ticket was for) was full, they did have 1 last economy seat they could offer.  I have never been and probably will never again be so happy to have the middle seat in economy for a 13 hour flight.  I could have waited another day for my confirmed business class seat, but with a day already missing from my trip it just was not worth it.  The
20 hours I had in Hong Kong were enough.  It was time to move on and start my adventure in South Africa.

If you find yourself stranded (or visiting for a short time) in Hong Kong the three things that I suggest you fill your time with are:

1.) Shopping: The national pastime of Hong Kong.  Prices are decent, though not amazing, but the selection rivals any other city on earth.  Hong Kong is lacking in a lot of tourist sites.  It seems to me that most people visit to shop.  Since everyone else was doing it I joined the holiday throngs (China’s National Day) and hit the mall.  I wound up with a few things that I had wanted to the trip was not completely without reason.
2.) Eat: What people in Hong Kong do when they are not shopping.  The food selection here is amazing.  Hong Kong is a city where east meets west and the flavors of both are combined wonderfully in Hong Kong.  Dim Sum, Western, Indian, Chinese and pretty much any other flavor you can think of are represented here and carried out to perfection.3.) Wander:  There are so many hidden wonders that to just wander is a great activity.  From hidden markets to riding the Star Ferry, there is a ton to see.  The city is so full of energy that, even though I did not really want to be there, it is impossible not to get excited about the pace of life.Before this, it had been a few years since I have visited Hong Kong.  This detour reminded me that there are plenty of good reasons to go back, perhaps most of all to finally make it up Victoria’s Peak.

My Top 5 Beijing Sights

September 7, 2011 1 comment

While living in Beijing over the last five years I have visited most of the tourist sights at least once. I was first a tourist, while studying in Shanghai in 2004 we made a week long trip to see many of the sights of Beijing. Since then, I have been back to some when friend and family visit and have seen a few more when taking a weekend to “be a tourist”. Below are my top 5 sights.

1.) Temple of Heaven This is the tourist sight that I can visit over and over again. There are three main temples, all of which are worth the trip in. These restored temples are the most famous attraction in the very large grounds, but it is not why the Temple of Heaven is my favorite. Every day rain or shine the grounds are filled with Beijing citizens taking advantage of the open spaces to exercise, practice tai chi, sing and dance.

2.) Food (Ghost Street and pretty much anywhere else) Beijing is one of the great food cities in the world. As the capital of China all of the provinces food is represented here. The argument can be made that the food is more authentic in their home province, however, those provinces do not have the wide range of tastes for every palate, from adventurous to food that pretty closely resembles Chinese take-out in the U.S.. One of my favorite meals which is similar to fondue, where you cook the meal yourself in a pot of broth. It is simply delicious and the atmosphere on Ghost Street adds another dimension to the meal.

3.) Hou Hai and the Hutongs (Hou Hai, Nanluguxiang) The hutongs are the historical courtyard homes of the middle and low classes in Beijing. There are alleys of these that have been preserved in the heart of the city as Beijing has modernized around it. Today there are a number of restaurants and shops that have taken over the hutongs, especially in the areas around Nanluguziand and Hou Hai. These alleys make for a great day of just wandering around, seeing what Beijing used to look like. Hou Hai also offer two lakes where you can enjoy a beer, rent a boat or even skate in the winter.

4.) Great Wall The quintessential China tourist site. It simply must be visited if you are in Beijing. My personal favorite sections are either Mutianyu or Simatai, though Simatai is very far away and is a major hike. I heavily recommend a “wild wall” section over the restored ones, though the restored areas tend to be easier to access from Beijing.

5.) Summer Palace The Summer Palace is the former summer home of the Emperor. This palace was built on the side of a lake and offered a respite from the heat of Beijing during summer. Similar to the Temple of Heaven, there are tons of people out doing exercise and just being outside.

The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square should be on everyones list, but I just cannot put them in my top 5. They are impressive, big, Chinese and important, but I never leave them thinking this way. Instead, I think they are big, tiring, repetitive and just a bit boring. By all means, if you are in Beijing you should go see them, but they do not WOW the way my top five do.

Ferran Adria and Dani Garci

Like so many other people in the last 15 years, I started to care about food in college.  It was in college that I first had access to the food network, and in college that I first started to expand my culinary boundaries.  Part of this journey has been knowing and caring about famous chef’s.  One of the most famous is Ferran Adria, head chef of the now closed El Bulli in Spain.  For five consecutive years, El Bulli was named the World Restaurant of the Year, making reservations nearly impossible to get. I tried for years to get a reservation to his restaurant, but never even came close.  Every visit to his website always had the same message.  “We are sorry, but all tables have been booked for the 20xx dining year.  Please try back next year.”  That’s right…El Bulli has a dining year.  When open, Adria only took booking for 6 months of the year, spending the rest of the time discovering new flavors and new ways to capture these flavors.  Many credit Adria with starting the Molecular Gastronomy movement, though he has come to hate this term.  His food challenges.  His food is different.  Often, the way the food is presented does not resemble the ingredients it contains in any way, tricking the senses and making for a surprising mouthful.

The most recent attempt at getting a table was this spring when we were planning our recent trip to Spain.  I was reminded of the dream of getting a table at El Bulli and found myself once again checking for available tables.  Still, no luck.  This was not actually that surprising since a few days after we were in Barcelona, Adria shut the doors of El Bulli for good.  In the next two years he will transition from El Bulli being a restaurant to a culinary academy, working on pushing the bounds of food and flavor with groups of students and contemporaries interested in a similar conception of what food can be.

The story should end there, knowing that I will (in all likelihood) never get to eat a meal cooked by Adria.  I suppose this is still the case, but I came a lot closer than I expected.  A few days after arriving back in Beijing from Spain I was paging through a listing of August events and was thrilled to see that Ferran Adria and Dani Garcia (a 2 star Michelin Chef who uses similar techniques to Adria) were coming to Beijing for three days.  To say I was thrilled is actually an understatement.  I believe I jumped up and down for a while, saying to anyone in earshot (pretty sure that this was only Teph) Ferran Adria, Ferran Adria, Ferran Adria in a tone of disbelief.  I was pretty excited.  I quickly emailed the hotel to get a reservation for one of the dinners only to find out Adria would be in Beijing for only a single night, the first (and most expensive) dinner.  Still, for this, money was no object and I changed the reservation to that night.  Alas, I was still thwarted since Adria was just doing a cooking demonstration, not actually cooking the dinner.  Even still I was very excited to get to try this type of cooking, anxious to push my palate and my conception of food.  The 11 course meal that Garcia presented did not disappoint.  It was one of the best, most challenging, mind bending meals I have ever had in my life.

While I still have not had Adria food, I did get to meet him.  I was able to get a picture with him and have him (and Garcia) sign copies of the menu for the night.  It was an amazing occasion and I am so glad that I had the chance to experience this type of food.

I was invited to share the story of what I ate on my sister’s blog, pomelosunshine.com .  Please visit her site for a detailed look (descriptions and photos) of the fantastic 11 course meal.

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.

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