Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Day 9 - Costa Brava to Mollo

I couldn't resist one last picture of our fabulous eating spot. Breakfast was fresh squeezed juice, cafe con leche made to order, bread with jam & butter, little pastries, assorted meats, cheeses & fruit.

The previous day, we had decided to wait for the weather - if it was sunny, we'd stay in Costa Brava & swim, then drive to the mountains later in the day. If it was too cold we'd hit the Dali Museum and head to the mountains. It was cold. Off to the Dali museum. Kyle and I both thought this would be our favorite museum of the trip. The books made it sound so interesting, but with no background on Dali at was our least favorite. The art felt like jibberish, it was crowded and the crowds for some reason were particularly annoying and rude. Maybe if I took a class on Dali and had some clue as to what things symbolized.....

Pink building with bread on the walls and an egg on top. Sounds fun, but gets old quickly. After the museum, it was lunch time. We had no idea where to eat. Everything looked horrible touristy - the town the museum is in is basically a backwater where Dali was born with nothing going for it but the museum. So there were tons of "tourist" restaurants everywhere.

We finally found a pinxto bar that looked edible. There was a room temperature case with bread topped with stuff that you could just help yourself from. For some reason it gave me a bad vibe - it was not tasty really, so I hardly ate much. Kyle was starving and ate one extra thing I didn't eat.
We headed out towards the pyrenees and stopped in Besalu, a cute medival town. The area was littered with them.

Finally, maybe 3 hours from Figueres/Dali Museum, we arrived at our hotel in the tiny mountain town of Mollo. It was pouring rain with a capital P.

A few minutes later, it let up and we went inside. The hotel was reminiscent of a swiss chalet and people were speaking french everywhere since we were so close to the french border. Except for the group of american motorcylce tourists. They were speaking texan.

The front desk asked if we wanted to eat at the hotel restaurant that night. I had read it was quite tasty, and planned to eat there one night and at this "semi-secret gastronomic gem" (Can Po) I'd found in Fodors that was 15 minutes away the other night. We looked at the night's menu, and the helpful desk guy who spoke english, we'll call him Juan, translated for us. When he got to the third entree choice, I freaked. It said "poltre" which I assumed was some sort of chicken. Thank goodness we never order chicken, because actually the entree was "pony cheek". In fact, the area was having a big "eat ponies" festival. I picked up the brochure just to prove it.

Kyle thought we should do the gastronomic gem, so I agreed. Actually he really wanted to eat the ponies, but sensing a fierce argument, I quickly suggested Can Po instead. An aside - when travelling with Kyle, he always wants to eat the weirdest thing on the menu. I tend to want to eat the best sounding thing, or whatever the waiter reccomends. Granted, he got me to try the veal carpaccio and baby eels, which I loved. But I resisted snails the whole trip and was wary of rabbit....and certainly refuse to eat ponies.

Within an hour it had quit raining so we went for a walk before our 9pm dinner reservation. The village was exquisite in the late evening sunlight.

When we got to the end of the village, we realized there were numerous walking routes heading out into the hills. We followed the lovely sound of cow bells and headed up a trail through pastures.
This is what I love about Europe. I love the mountain villages with cute homes and lodging, that have been there forever. I love trails going through private property, from town to town. I love amazing gourmet restaurants out in the middle of nowhere. Yes, I am glad we have our pristine wilderness areas, but sometimes, I just wish there were a cute mountain villages perched on hills and cow bells, all along Hwy 20. Or anywhere in our mountains.

Our walk was sublime and we couldn't wait to do more the next day. But first we had a date with Can Po, one I'd been looking forward to for quite a while. When we arrived, it was dead empty. It was 9pm, much too early for a spanish dinner, even in the mountains. On a friday. I think they do most of their business in the winter ski season because only a few more diners joined us at 10pm.
It was a good thing we were early because there was a big language barrier and we were very indecisive. So many things looked amazing and we weren't really sure how much to order since everything in spain seems to be small plate style. We finally settled on prawn carpaccio with fresh porcini confit, plus a puff pastry tart layered with fois gras, potatoes and ...apples maybe? (actually...I don't really remember what was in it). They both blew our minds, if I remember correctly.

Next we had a goat cheese salad with avocado and jamon.... and finally our main courses. We ordered a wild boar stew and a filet w/ a porcini mushroom cream sauce. I loved the beef, kyle liked the stew better than I did. The stew was full and earthy, but still a stew and I don't think I'm a huge fan of stew meat. We shared both and were stuffed. I'm sure we had dessert too, but my memory is seriously failing me. Take notes next time I guess!

Back to the hotel and off to bed until......

Monday, June 28, 2010

Days 7 & 8 - Barcelona to Costa Brava

On Day 8, Kyle and I fell in love. But before that...Day 7, our final day in Barcelona. We'll keep it brief. We woke, it was pouring rain. Gorged on Chucho's again, spent lots of money on fancy food souvenirs at the Boqueria. Went to Sagrada Familia again, in the rain.

When you buy tickets to go inside the church, you can also take an elevator up to one of the tallest towers. This was the line of bored tourists waiting for the elevator, snaking around a sculpture of suffering Christ, being flogged on a pole with a tear running down his cheek.
Inside was chaos. Walls up, multiple heavy machinery moving scaffolding between the columns. Jackhammers or something loud to that effect, going constantly. We couldn't even hear each other speak. If you look closely below, there are two men in red, rappelling on the column in the back. I took this picture over a wall that completely obscured our view of the construction area. Its the best one I got.

We were a bit disappointed that we couldn't even see most of the church or get a feel what it would be like when it was finished. (and that the noise was deafening) This sign made us feel much, much better.

Down under the church was a museum of plaster models and drawings that sort of showed what the church would be like when it was finished, how Gaudi had envisioned it, etc. It was pretty interesting but didn't really make the 11 euro (each) entry fee feel worth it. Thank goodness the money went to help build the church, otherwise we would have been bitter.

Now it was really truly pouring and we were supposed to eat lunch at a special "rice" shop way across town. (and take a long walk) Bedraggled & grumpy we made it to the rice place, sort of a more rustic paella that was supposed to be amazing & cooked over a wood fire. I enjoyed it, but let's just say it wasn't the highlight of the trip for Kyle and he complained about the rain & the rice...quite a bit. Apparently hand peeling prawns that are covered in sauce is very high on Kyle's list of pet peeves.

Out of sorts, we went straight back to our hotel, hit up one more gourmet food store for gifts and then got in our car and drove away from Barcelona. On the way out we decided to stay by the water to check out the beaches. It was already later than we'd hoped and rush hour. But we were in a better mood, feeling cocky about our navigation skills, so we kept skipping the on ramps to our freeway in favor of the more scenic route.

Suddenly we there were no more signs for our freeway. The road dead ended in an industrial zone. Kyle's iphone map quit working and we had no other map of this area. We drove in a couple circles.

I know you're crazed with suspense, but we found our way somehow. We'd gotten lost in Badalonia. That's right, just outside of Barcelonia is a suburb called Badalonia. We were very amused. Finally, very late and a few more hours and wrong turns later, we found our next hotel up the coast in an area called Costa Brava.

The fog was thick, but our lodging looked promising. We'd picked up fancy jamon, wine, manchego & fruit to have a picnic on our patio but when Kyle saw our hotel terrace restaurant he decided he was too hungry to have a picnic. This picture taken the next morning shows why:
The location was breathtaking. We enjoyed our dinner wrapped in cozy restaurant provided blankets under an white awning. Raindrops occasionally snuck onto our cheeks and the waves crashed below. Most of the lighting was by candles and a couple lamps.
Later on our room's patio (seen above) we polished off the "picnic" we'd brought as well. It was wonderful. When we woke the next morning and were able to truly appreciate our hotel and we....well we loved it. In fact we loved it so much, I don't even want to type the name here. Because if I tell you the name, everyone will get my blog on google and then run to it and it will be booked forever. But if you beg me in person or by email, I will tell you.

We had breakfast on the terrace again and then got ready to take a nice long walk on the pathway carved out along the shore.

I don't know why, but I was in love with this couch & the lavender. and the rocks, terra cotta pots and the giant citronella candle in a glass pot. sigh.

With our room, we had access to this crazy apartment building next door so that we could use their saltwater swimming pool. Apparently the place we were staying used to be the maid/guard quarters for it, back when it was a huge luxury resort for Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. Now it still has charm but no ones maintained it super well. But the pool area was still incredible.

Notice the handrails leading into the ocean. It was still rainy & windy, so the waves were too big for any swimming. And they drained the pool so we didn't even get to try that.

The pool. After admiring where we could have hung out if it was sunny, we went on our walk. The path goes right under the house in the picture below and you could use the stairs to go swimming if you wanted. If it was sunny.

Walking trails crisscrossed the area but we only used the one right along the water. It led to the point you could see in the pictures far above...the point we looked at while we ate dinner. Here is the coast past that point:

On your way to the point, you go through a teeny town with a nice sandy beach & a couple restaurants. And lots of cute cute houses.

How can we get a turret added onto our house? I really want to would fit our neighborhood I think.

Looking back at the tiny town. The huge apartment is the monstrosity to the far right. Our hotel is nestled in the trees to the left of it. The beauty is that we couldn't really see the apartments from our hotel because of the angle, so the view was not diminished.

We were hungry so we headed to a nearby town for lunch. We couldn't find anyplace that looked appetizing so we sat down at a busy looking place filled with british people. The menu looked horrible. So horrible and un-spanish that we finally left, cursing brits and the way they ruin perfectly good food.

We went back to this smokey little bar we'd seen, hoping that it was better than the british place even though at first glance it did not look promising. In the states it would have been a nasty dive bar. In spain...bars like that are apparently culinary heaven.
Everything was sitting room temperature, but when they warmed up our salt cod, chorizo, & marinated squid they were spectacular. The marinated anchovies were the best I'd ever had, mild & delicious, I could have just had them, bread and wine and been happy. And of course they had padron peppers. With all that salty food we had four glasses of wine, plus coffee, plus an after lunch liquor and the total was less than $40. We were stuffed.

Time to walk it off, through the cute medieval little town, up to the castle ruins on top of the hill. It was so pretty.

The view from the castle went all the way to the border with France practically. And by now it had cleared up and was sunny and warmish.
Funny local teen kids flirting on top of the castle with the catalan flag.

Hot local on the streets with more castle like buildings. By now we were smitten hard with the whole area. It just kept getting better. We picked up a real estate brochure and dreamed over it back on our hotel porch. Its amazing what 1.8 million euros will get you over there. (sea view, swimming pool, large beautiful house with character)

We took another walk along the coast before dinner, just to make sure we had an appetite. Then we settled in at 9:30 on the terrace restaurant for a fantastic night.

I LOVED the blankets. Such a cozy way to eat dinner. The restaurant had live blues music at 10pm. We ordered my first beef carpaccio (amazing!), tuna carpaccio (eh), risotto, razor clams and finally....fois gras on top of a filet mignon. We hung out for hours, ate some dessert and finally went up to the inside lounge where I whooped kyle in a game of chess. I think we went to bed sometime after 1am. I love long dinners.....

By far our favorite place on the entire trip. We saved all the real estate brochures, just so we can dream.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Day 5 - Barcelona

On Tuesday, we did Barcelona.

First back to the Boqueria for breakfast at the most famous place to eat there: Pinotxo. It was very busy and we had no idea what to order, so when the Juan pointed at a deep brown greasy pastry coated in sugar we said "sure!"

Chucho. That is the word for the most fabulous gut bomb breakfast in the world. Imagine a croissant, filled with amazing vanilla custard then deep fried and rolled in sugar. Crisp & deep brown on the outside, flaky tender on the inside (NOT like a donut at all and not exactly like a croissant either) and then perfect homemade pudding/custard. It was amazing.

We wandered through the food stalls some more, we just couldn't help ourselves. Then we walked to the Barri Gotic to explore a bit. We went in the cathedral and went to the courtyard with the geese where they had the gorgeous flower petal mural seen above.
By 11:00 we had made our way over to the Picasso Museum. No lines, just lots of tour guides blocking entire rooms or certain paintings for 15 minutes at a time. I could go into a huge a rant right now about how I hate tour groups, but I'll refrain. (they just cause clogs that the rest of us have to fight our way through) We loved the Picasso museum because it was organized by age and started with some paintings he'd done when he was 12. It was so incredible to see his early work, see the painting that got him a scholarship in Madrid, and watch his work progress towards cubism.

The funny thing is that the museum didn't actually have many good examples of the type of work Picasso is most known for - all the famous ones are in bigger museums. Another highlight was an entire room of paintings where he had copied and played with Velazquez's "Las Meninas" which we had just seen in Madrid. Kyle loved the logical nature of the museum - not just a bunch of random paintings, but ones that told a story.

After the museum, we walked to the park and contemplated our lunch options. After quite a bit of thinking, we finally picked a place up by the sites we wanted to see next - Gaudi's houses in Eixample. First we walked the waterfront from Citadel Park to the Columbus monument. A few subway stops later we were outside of Casa Batillo and the Block of Discord, admiring the funky twisty houses.

We found our restaurant which unfortunately I forget the name of. Kyle threw away the pages I'd ripped out of our guidebook for each town, claiming I wouldn't need them. I reluctantly agreed (I have a rick steves book from 1996 on my bookshelf, but still try to fight my hoarding instinct) and now I can't double check the names of the places we went to. Oh well.
This was probably our favorite meal in Spain. It was super crowded (with locals), but huge and we were able to get a table right away with a waiter who spoke very good english.
Solomillo - a 4 oz piece of filet mignon grilled rare on a piece of toast for only $5
Our first ever grilled razor clams - from then on we ordered them every place we went
grilled wild mushrooms w/ pancetta (seen below with the peppers)
The only spicy padron peppers we got in all of spain
skewers of cheese & bacon wrapped dates (seen below)
The steak & the skewers were so good and cheap, we ordered seconds. It was amazing food.

Next up: Gaudi's Casa Mila. It was beautiful and fun to walk through. We loved the roof "terrace"

Kyle with our next stop, the Sagrada Familia in the background.

At this point, I got bored of taking pictures of funky roof sculptures and decided my real calling in life was to take pictures of other tourists. See my "tourist opus" above. Lucky for you, my camera battery died right as my excitement for my new muse peaked. This was the only "good" shot I got. (also note: we borrowed a camera and didn't realize till we returned that the lense had a smudge on it. So picture quality isn't great, the best photos are from kyle's iphone, like the Sagrada Familia ones below)
We walked a nice long mile or so to the Sagrada Familia and had a great conversation about art. One we've had many times before - what makes art art and an artist an artist? But somehow seeing the art & architecture renewed our interest in the topic. Kyle also brought up this question: Why does art rarely express joy or laughter? Why does it most often address such sullen topics? (feel free to share your thoughts in the comments if you have them!)
Quickly it seemed, we were at the church. We weren't planning to go in it, but once we sat outside and read about it we decided to come back the next morning. Basically the church was started 125 years ago by Gaudi. It was his final project, his grand vision and if you read about the symbolism in it, it is phenomenal. Only one side of it was finished when Gaudi got hit by a trolley and died. It was halted for years during the Spanish Civil war and under Franco, and it still has about 25 years worth of work left to be completed.
I could go on and on, we loved and were so fascinated by the whole project. Kyle even bought a book on Gaudi, and he actually doesn't really even like his work at all. (being the square straight line guy that he is. Of course I have always loved Gaudi since my first brief visit to Barcelona 13 years ago - being the chaotic whimsical creator that I am) We decided the entrance fee was worth paying since it helped build the church and vowed to come back in the morning.
The "Passion" side of the church with sculptures done in the 80's/90's

The "Nativity" side of the church, done when Gaudi was alive in the early 1900s.
We walked another couple miles back to our hotel, running into yet another closed street with a huge mass of protesters. (government workers this time) After a rest, we headed out for dinner in a taxi at 9pm. It was to be our one "fancy" dinner in Spain. We ate well all the other times, because for us, food is a huge part of our trip. (in case you haven't noticed) But this one time, I wanted to try fine dining in Spain, especially getting a chance to try the catalan "experimental" style food that originated with El Bulli up the coast. The chef there, Ferran Adria, does "molecular gastronomy" and has impacted cuisine world wide with his creations. (if you've ever had a savory "foam" on your food, you can thank him)
Supposedly the chef at the restaurant we were going to, Gelonch, worked at El Bulli before opening his own restaurant. His tasting menu was also considerably cheaper than many that we looked at, plus someone on raved about it. So we went.
It was fun. Not our favorite meal in spain, but worth the experience in my book. Our starter were these crisps with a bunch of flavored powders on them - olive, tomato, a couple cheeses, oregano. When you took a bite, it tasted like a pizza.

Next up was mussle pate w/ a sesame crisp. It arrived looking like this:
You got to squeeze the pate out onto your crisp and it was fun to do it all decoratively.
My favorite menu item was this soup. Each color is a different vegetable puree and in the center was a deeply flavorful vegetable broth. But the fun part was that when it arrived there was a glass dome filled with smoke over it. The soup was infused with a nice smokiness and was delicious.
Other favorites were a mille feuille of pork & octopus and dessert of cherry crisp with balsamic ice cream & tufa nut foam, and a pineapple sorbet with candied fennel, bay cream and other stuff I don't remember. I think we both found the meats a little disappointing - the sauces seemed more french style than experimental - deep broth flavors that probably took hours to reduce and the meat was good, but he seemed to take extreme pride in cooking it forever at low temperature to make it succulent. Which for us...well it was hard to really notice when we'd never eaten pork belly before. Tasty, but not quite as exciting as we'd hoped.
So finished our awesome Barcelona day. I LOVE Barcelona. It is probably one of my favorite cities. Catalan cuisine blew us away and there were always about 10 restaurants I wanted to try for each meal. I love Gaudi and the way his style infuses the whole city. I love the old quarters with their winding passages. The tight areas could be creepy, but everything is so clean and nice and actually feels lived in rather than just completely touristy. (but yes, there are lots of tourists). And we didn't even make it to the sandy beaches rimming the town....But we did see a guy ride by on his bike completely nude.