Sunday, 31 July 2011

Madrid - Mañana Mañana

Full marks for booking the same period as the heatwave, I have an impressive track record of chasing the heat. Madrid was a furnace at 36 degrees. This city is no stranger to me, but I have always seen it as a functional hub as opposed to a travel hotspot. Still, since we were in Spain, I might as well take my folks through the lot.

Siesta is totally justifiable. My scalp was burning under the scorching sun. We strolled around to get a feel of the Capital, from the Puerta del Sol, we headed into Via Gracia for some highstreet shopping, partly because the summer sale was on, mainly because my bro only packed 3 vests for 10 days (Don't ask, long story...)

I faced my first battle when it came to our first coffee break, I couldn't remember ANY Spanish in front of the flustered waitress.

Come on dig deeper... Nope, just a handful of Italian words sprang to mind. Why did they teach me 'Where is the Bank?' at school when I'd clearly go in with f-load of cash? Why didn't they teach 'Why are you still hitting me with torrents of Spanish when I just said No parlo Español?'

That's okay, with much frantic waving and gesturing minus the multinational finger, I got the espresso with milk and a glass of ice instead of my desired iced latte. By the way, English is not all that common in this country. A safer bet is of-course to go with the picture menu.

Streets start crowding after six. We bought our breakfasts from the supermarket of El Corte Ingles. I get cranky in the morning without a hot breakfast, just scrambled eggs would make me happy. As a family of 4, we rented a little duplex apartment instead of 2 hotel rooms. This proved to be very convenient with a living room for us to chill and watched Nadal lost to Novak in Wimbledon.

The next morning we decided to take it easy with a brief wander to Museo del Prado and the golden triangle of Arts. We came across the chain Museo de Jamon, with rows of ham hanging from the ceiling and locals standing around the bar for their quick lunch. Poor quality stuff to be honest. 

After a much finer Iberico Jamon Bellota break back in the apartment, we walked through Plaza Mayor to Mercado de San Miguel for a late lunch. 
A Big Spiderman in Action at Plaza Mayor 
This indoor market may be small but it has a concentration of gourmet stalls selling all kinds of tapas, paella, fresh juices and pastries.

The oysters came in 4 sizes, I had the biggest of Especial Daniel Sorlut (Eur 2.80) and the one-size Especial de Claire (Eur 1.40), which apparently has a hazelnut tang. Very flavoursome sea gems, perhaps rinse the seawater off for a less salty slurp.

The fishy pintos were less impressive; tuna was dry, cod brandada was bland but the worst offender was the teeth-cracking bread that pierced into the roof of my mouth. Blooming texture spoilers. Nonetheless they were all washed down with freshly squeezed syrupy strawberry juice.

8 o'clock was obviously too early for dinner, so we settled at a Belgian (in Spain?! I know) cafe that serves over 40 types of beer but only 1 Spanish red and 1 Belgium white. Cafe Ke is just off the stairs from the South-west corner of Plaza Mayor. The English-speaking waitress was welcoming and made some excellent recommendations of raspberry beer, Pink Killer (a bit like ginger beer) and a relatively wheaty Belgium draft.

With the high abundance of restaurants and bars in Madrid, tourist traps are almost impossible to dodge and I have been warned to steer well clear from the eateries in the Plaza. Thanks to mix reviews I skipped a visit to Botin, the oldest restaurant in Europe. Instead we ventured into Cava Baja, a street that promises a gastronomic tour. While Casa Lucas and Casa Lucio have both earned raving reviews and celebrity clientele, it was La Chata that got my vote.

The eye-catching ornamented tiles across the exterior of the La Chata gave a sense of traditional Castillian. At 9pm the entrance was swamped by people drinking at the bar, nibbling on tapas and olives. We were greeted by the Romanian waiter and led to the restaurant downstairs. Apparently the menu at the bar-adjoining room is supposed to be cheaper, but the prices downstairs were very reasonable too. He spoke good English and recommended us some house specials.

Stuffed Red Peppers Cod Stew
Hearty stew with indulgently creamy mash infused with cod, stuffed into sugar sweet peppers, topped with strong stretching cheese. Absolutely delicious.

Suckling Pig
They serve big. The pig was beautifully roasted with thin crispy skin and tender meat, but slightly under-seasoned. It came with a translucent sauce that resembled liquid goose fat; health warnings aside, the sauce brought life to the pig.

Oxtail stew
This had to be the weakest part of the meal; though the oxtail meat flaked off with minimum effort, the sauce was an overkill that wasn’t dissimilar to double concentrated gravy.

We had a tomato salad on the side. Perhaps my parents had been too deprived of fresh veg, they fell in love with it and mopped it up that I never had the chance to try. Bro became a fan of Sangria, which proved too strong for Dad and Mum was tipsy after a few sips. Gotta love my family for giving everything a go though.
Digestives on the House
After a good night sleep, we packed our bags for the Renfe Atocha station to catch our speedy train to the Catalan Capital, Barcelona.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Barcelona - Eat. Drink. Dream.

The Renfe train got us to Barcelona Sants under 3 hours. I picked up the keys from the office and was told the apartment was a short walk from Verdaguer station in L’Exiample district. Walks are rarely short in Barcelona; even the metro subways within the same station stretch long distances. The apartment was 5-20mins from the station, depending on the exit we took.

After a good break, we wandered across to Diagonal and down Passeig de Gracia to catch a glimpse of La Pedrera. It’s been 5 years since I visited the Catalan Capital, but the city still felt familiar; wide streets neatly lined with tall trees, nouvelle architecture dotted at the most unlikely places, quirky bars hidden on side streets, busy crowds in all directions; Barcelona was bursting with life.

The original plan was to have dinner at Marisco, a seafood restaurant recommended by many travellers, but its doors remained closed at 9. We resorted to a homely joint called Can Pere near our flat. No, one shouldn’t randomly choose a restaurant, especially if there is a ‘menu of the day’, as if I hadn’t learnt my lesson in Madrid. The food wasn’t appalling; Iberico pork fillet was good, but the ultra salty Roquefort sauce was an overkill; cod was unnecessarily over-seasoned and the calamari must have spent too long in the freezer. On the plus side, black rice was al dente and the waiter spoke English.

The next morning we visited the Sagrada Familia; I visited all the major works of Gaudi in my previous trip, but agree this is the landmark. I explained the significance of the various facades and the history of it all; Dad wasn’t surprised it still had a long way to go given the working hours of the Spaniards.

We headed Las Ramblas next. I hate this street. It’s a mess, and a long one too. What’s worse, the bird-chirpers or the idiots playing (and failing) where-is-the-ball? This is where all the Fabregas look-alikes all disappear. Cliché souvenirs aside, there was a vendor selling rabbits, chicks and hamsters… furry pets under the scorching sun at 36˚C?

I took a break midway at La Boqueria Market, and hunted down El Quim for lunch. So tapas is not a traditional feat in Catalan cuisine, but it doesn’t stop good tapas bars popping up in this gastronomic temple.

Pushing through the crowds at stalls selling fresh juice and fruit platters near the entrance, we came to the Information desk. If like my Brother, who loses all will to live at the sight and smell of wet fish stalls (and whole pig head, skinned rabbit and lamb head with an eyeball popping out), then I suggest going around the peripheral of the market.

El Quim was full; local and tourists all sat on the high stools around the bar with eager (and extremely hungry) diners standing behind them. Getting 4 seats in a row wasn’t easy but the smiley staff managed to direct us to one extended side called El Quim Petit. We were given an English menu to tick our orders.

Grilled Prawns
Massive, (my) palm size prawns beautifully grilled and simply seasoned with rock salt, so fleshy, crunchy and fresh. Dad would prefer to have them deveined, but personally I’m not fussed.

Razor Clams
Absolutely gorgeous tubes of succulent clams, just about cooked to retain its bounciness with minimal seasoning and dressing so the natural sweetness came through uncontaminated.

Iberico Jamon Bellota
Good but still not as good as the ones we bought from a gourmet shop in Madrid.

Steamed Mussels
Relatively weak with skimpy morsels and mild aroma.

Cod croquettas

An open sandwich topped with a heap of sautéed fungi in cream and a white fish fillet with apple chips
Strange, I know, especially the white fish, which tasted like fish belly with its air bladder(?).

With a full stomach, we continued the remaining Ramblas to reach the harbour, where we sat under the Christopher Columbus monument before crossing the footbridge to the magnificent MareMagnum. The sea breeze was much appreciated.
We walked through the shopping centre to the Aquarium, then onto the other side of Port Vell. After a fair bit of people watching from the harbour, we meandered into the Cuitat Vella (Old Town) to hide from the sunset heat and munched on some easy tapas.

After a lip-smacking dinner at Santa Maria, so good it deserved a post on its own, and some heart-pounding moments of a street rat seizing the bag of a British tourist, it was bedtime.

Our ferry to Palma Mallorca is scheduled to depart at 11pm, so we had a full day to kill at the beach in Barceloneta. The weather wasnt great in late morning, sunny intervals with thick clouds and dense, humid air. Nonetheless the long stretch of beach was still half full with sun chasers. By 4pm the sky cleared and the beach was packed. Its not a great beach, and it could be a better one without the army of drinks vendor and masseurs patrolling and chanting incomprehensive murmurs. 

As night fell, we checked in for the ferry 2 hours before departure and were told a bus would pick us up from the office to the ferry in 15mins. 65mins later we were still waiting for the bus. As time ticked on I asked one of the staff if I could walk to ferry instead. She laughed and explained it was a 5km walk, then sympathetically said ‘This is Spain…’. Bus finally arrived at 10:30 as a huge crowd gathered in front of the office. Little did I know the massive coach only picked up 10 people for Palma, the rest of the groaning horde were heading Ibiza, Menorca and the likes. When impatient travellers demanded their transit, the driver helplessly cited, ‘This is Spain.

So glad we didnt walk, the road was a deadlock of heavy lorries and coaches. The bus unloaded us on the ferry, and the 7-hour journey to Palma finally set off at midnight. This is Spain.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Palma de Mallorca - At the Palm of Sun

The sunrise at Mallorca greeted us nice and early around 6; the sea journey was an absolute torture. Compared to the pleasant ferry trips back in Greece, this 7-hour sail was most intolerable and uncomfortable; ear-drum blasting announcements at 1am, corpse-preserving air-con and interrogation style lights throughout. Not a wink of sleep. Foot passengers were last off the ferry as a coach drove onboard to carry us off.

Bus No.1 runs from the Port to the Airport near Can Pastilla via the City Centre. Although I have booked a hotel by the beach, we wanted to catch some breakfast in the city before checking in. The town was like any other town. Dad thought it looked more normal than Madrid and Barcelona even, because we could see people in suits, queuing for buses, heading to work. It was 8am for crying out loud.

Bar Cristal won my Dad over with its nostalgic touch; ceiling fans, tiled walls, tarnished mirrors and the odd jukebox in the corner.

The hotel was a 5min walk to the Beach. This side of the island was simple, just bar and restaurants, souvenir shops and bike rentals on the sea front. My only intention for the day was lots of sleep on the white sandy beach. I got it.
Its always difficult to choose a good restaurant by the beach; they dont need to be good. Menus look generic and despite going to the one with most people, food was still downright awful. In the end we gave up and ate anywhere with a panoramic view of the sunset.

Fully recharged with plenty of sleep, we rented bikes to venture along the coast. The vision was to conquer the entire Mallorca Island, and hardcore biking was obviously the strategy. Dad was put off by the taller bikes we all chose and opted for one with (what he thought) smaller wheels. It was a freaking racing mountain bike, you know, the ones where your bottom hang in mid-air most of the time. 30mins into the ride,  he kept whinging about his aching butt and proved to be a public threat, I swapped my bike with him  it was a prettier sight for most.

The views along the coast were breath-taking to say the least.
4 hours later my brother busted his tyres at Cala Blava. While we were waiting for his replacement bike, I realised we probably made 1/200 of the island. So much for finishing the day with a tour around the Cathedral in the old city. Ha ha ha. Instead we went to the other side of Can Pastilla with a rockier coastline after lunch.

Except for Mums minor fall (low energy on an uphill slope) and Dads near-collisions throughout the day, I think we did pretty well.

We spotted PuroBeach and Marinas club restaurant for the posher meals. Had I came with Mister and brought my better dresses, I would have given them a try. But on this holiday, none of us were in the mood.

Then the rest of the holiday just floatedon a float bed on calm waters.