A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: JonathanU

Coming Home- Part 2

I’ve been home now for over a week and had a lot of time to reflect on the trip we’ve been on. It’s pretty amazing to think of all the places we’ve been, and going through shipments we sent home from SE Asia, it’s hard to believe that all that time ago we were in Thailand or Vietnam. Europe still feels so fresh, and like with my trip to South America, the memories from every stop are so vivid, the sites, the smells, the feel of every country. It’s great to go on Facebook and see posts in all different languages from friends we made around the world, and it’s interesting to run into people that have followed our blog, especially the unexpected ones. So I guess this will be my last blog entry about this trip, and although I won’t stop thinking about it, now is the time to finish it, but use what it has taught me to continue on with my life.

The world is a big place, to say the least, and even though we covered 25 countries, I feel like we have just begun to scratch the surface of traveling and seeing what the world has to offer. As we moved, I became more interested in culture, art, history, and language. My mother in law said something very interesting about the way I travel, something that I’d never thought about, something that I’d never strived for, but it meant a lot to me and perhaps defines me as a traveler. She said that when she goes on vacation, they go to where they are supposed to, visit the old towns, eat at the restaurant with the big sign that says “typical food” or something like that. But not me, she was amazed after reading my book about how I search, travel, and struggle to find the real culture, no matter where it is. In this trip I think we were able to do this, to find the true culture, and I think that only a backpacker, without the strict limits of time or pre planning can do this, and that’s why I love to throw on a pack and see where I end up. Our friend Julia half criticized me for saying hello to everyone that I see, but this is the only way to connect, with a smile and a greeting, because you never know who you are going to meet and where that is going to take you.

We started our trip so far back in Fiji, in an amazing setting with wonderful locals, great backpackers, unbearable heat and our first and only real illness of the trip. The nights there were full of hope, laughter, and a realization that our dream had begun. As we continued through New Zealand and Australia, I was forced to really change my style of backpacking, my first time on a tight budget in a first world country, a complete 180 from the way that I traveled through South America. Then Asia, the heat, the confusion, but most of all, the inability to communicate, taught me so much about keeping calm, guarding my frustration, and overcoming obstacles. Asia was difficult because I wanted to talk to people, I wanted to learn, and when we did get the opportunity to talk to someone it was amazing, but I again added a notch to the backpack, and was forced to change how we traveled to adjust to not being able to communicate. The Middle East was a wondrous stop after Asia. From the moment that the plane made an unannounced stop in Lebanon, I knew that this would be a part of the trip full of surprises and tests. Jordan and Israel felt like we were walking through the pages of a history book. They were so raw and extreme, and the old town of Jerusalem was one of the most exciting places I have ever been in my life. Europe was tougher than we thought it would be. Everything was a bit more expensive than we’d hoped. It was hotter or colder than we’d expected. We had more trouble communicating than in Asia. Returning to Europe a bit older and a bit more traveled allowed us to choose places to visit both on and off the tourist path and having friends in those places gave us the opportunity to see cities from a unique perspective.

I look back on this trip not as something that’s finished, but something that is continuing. I hope to be able to use the experiences gained in the future, bring them to work, to our relationship, to my friendships and to whatever obstacles we encounter. I have come home a bit more relaxed, more knowledgeable, and in a marriage that has been through more than most. I’ve put almost 60000 more miles on my backpack and gained so many new friends in different countries. I’ve renewed my love of reading, food, wine, and relearned the importance of a comfortable bed, good service, and multiple drawers full of clean clothes. I’ve now spent over two years of my life with a backpack on, and although I think that this is the end of this type of adventure, I know that the backpacker spirit is alive within me, always eager to explore, learn, teach, communicate, laugh, and cry. The difficulties of a horrible night in a loud room or an old bus are worth the joys of a steaming hot bowl of the best soup you’ve ever tasted, and that a pounding hangover is worth the friends that you made and kept you out until the wee hours of the morning. The pain of carrying your backpack through the summer sun in Europe is worth that small restaurant hidden behind the church, or the smile of the B&B owner that goes the extra step to make sure you are welcome in their town. The struggle to save money gives the opportunity to go where only the locals go, and the few words of a language that we learn allows the chance to communicate.

Those nights in Fiji were just the start of the realization of a dream, and we slept in 110 different beds along the way, each time not knowing what the next day would hold. Life is short, and fear is pointless. We just celebrated life for 10 months, and I hope that when we see you, you can notice the joy that we both feel, and in my words, I hope you can hear the enthusiasm we had. I loved the cities, the chaos of Saigon, the beauty of Paris, the joy of being with friends and family in London. I smile when I think of the small towns, my love of Koh Phangan, the perfection of Belluno and everywhere in between. For all those people that we met along the way, thank you, you made our trip, you opened your doors, you took us in, and you made this trip a success. To everyone that we knew and saw while going, thank you for the break, thank you for allowing us to come home even for just a few hours over tapas in Barcelona or dinner overlooking the bay in Sydney.

Favorite place: Koh Phangan, Thailand
Favorite City: Paris/Saigon
Least favorite city: Naples
Favorite beach town: Byron Bay, Australia
Worst night of travel: Hoi An to Hanoi
Most memorable restaurant meal: Hosteria il Brigante, Salerno, Italy
Favorite night out: tie Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan / Bukowski’s Bar, Prague
Best Sunset: Fiji or Santorini, Greece


Reading List
: (chronological order) *=FAVORITES
The Grapes of Wrath- J. Steinbeck *
Lincoln- Gore Vidal
A Cooks Tour- Anthony Bourdaine
The Overcoat and other Stories- Gogol
The Quiet American- Graham Greene
100 Years of Solitude- Gabriel Garcia Marquez *
Satanic Verses- Salmon Rushdie
A Thousand Splendid Suns- Khaled Hosseini *
The Odyssey- Homer
Summer of Fear- T. Jefferson Parker
Anarchy and Old Dogs- Colin Cotterill
Kiterunner- Khaled Hosseini
Juliet, Naked- Nick Hornby
Love in the time of Cholera- Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The School Mistress with the Golden Eyes- Stratis Myrivils
About A Boy- Nick Hornby
Slaughter House 5- Kurt Vonnegut
Shantaram- Gregory Roberts *
The Jacaranda Tree- H.E. Bates
Too Loud a Solitude- Bohumil Hrabal
A History of Language- Steven R Fischer *
Barcelona- A History- J. Castellar-Gassol
Fever Pitch- Nick Hornby
The Mayor of Casterbridge- Thomas Hardy
Tales of the Alhambra- Washington Irving
East of Eden- John Steinbeck

Posted by JonathanU 12:26 Comments (3)

Brazil to home

Part 1

It certainly feels good to be home. Aside from what I am confronted with right now, no job, living with my parents, and having no real assurance of what is going to happen to us in the next few months, I am happy to be here. This is the toughest blog entry to write so far because of what has happened over the past few days, our hopes for the future, and of course a bit of a recap of our whole trip. I wanted to write all day yesterday, but there never seemed to be the right time, or perhaps I just wasn’t in the mental state to do it, and by the time I finally decided to start, I was so exhausted that nothing would come out. So I guess a bit of jetlag at 6 am after arriving home at 1 am from 24 hours of straight travelling is the best time to start! So here goes… Part 1!

I love going to Brazil. This was my fifth visit and my third time to Flavia’s hometown of Itapejara d’Oeste, and each time even with little to do, the days pass quickly, we are welcomed into so many homes, and life rolls at such a nice pace. Over the weekend, we headed to Flavia’s family’s small lake house on Lake Iguassu, an hour drive from their home. It was nice to get away from the craziness of extended family dinners for a few nights and really just hang out with Flavia’s mom, dad, brother and his girlfriend. As usual there was a lot of beer and BBQ, and I also found my “in” to the hearts of Brazilians. This was the second time I’ve cooked French Toast for Brazilians, who by the way love sweets, and the word of my weird American breakfast has spread far and wide, and the requests seemed to pour in and everyone wanted to know exactly how I made that delicious concoction. While there, I tried to read as much as possible, and I got the opportunity to do a bit of fishing, a weird craving I’ve been having for a bit, although I didn’t catch anything. Lake Iguassu has an interesting feel. It’s mostly weekend homes and as many of the more affluent families are originally from the south of Brazil, there is this feeling of Gaucho (people from the Southern state of Rio Grande do Sul) culture. The people are more fare skinned here, and from every house comes the terribly redundant country music called “Sertaneja”. This music sings of cowboys, loss, love, girls, and food.

The days moved surprisingly fast after the weekend. I spent a morning with Flavia’s aunt and learned how to make Tortè, homemade pumpkin stuffed pasta with a red chicken sauce. It’s Flavia’s favorite and is so amazingly good that I had to take the recipe home with me, but then again all the food we get here is great. I find that of all the travelling we do, Brazilian’s really know how to fill a table with an abundance of good food, and no lunch is ever just thrown together. The influence of Italian, German, and Brazilian traditions in the south have created so many great inadvertent fusions and the abundance and quality of fruit, produce, and meat allow Brazilians to really create amazing food. I find that tradition does overwhelm creativity a bit here. I think that many Brazilians are a bit timid when it comes to trying new food, and many have a long list of things they don’t eat. This kind of stems from the close knit family culture where some children are over mothered, and I would like to see an advance in the culinary world similar to what we have with Gastropubs. The idea of really eating A La Carte food is still a bit foreign outside of Sao Paulo and Rio. Instead most restaurants are buffets, por quilo (where you pay by the weight of your food), Rodizio (an all you can eat with servers bringing around food, especially popular for pizza or sushi) or the all mighty Churrascaria (Brazilian Steakhouse). There does seem to be a growing demand, and I was asked to cook a few times while here, which I took as a great sign of respect, and people seemed very interested in the way that I cooked and my liberal use of fresh spices and other ingredients that may be a bit foreign to them.

I think the main purpose of going to Itapejara is family, and it’s always tough to say goodbye to them when we leave. It’s such an exhausting trip to get to the town that it’s well known that we can’t come more than once a year. For Flavia, it’s always most difficult to say goodbye to her Grandma. I had a good time with Nona, I like to talk to her and find out the interesting history of the Brazilians and especially her family. Stories seem so different when told from her lips. She was from a family of 14 children, and her and Flavia’s Grandfather, who died in a car accident about 20 years ago, were the first family to pick up and move from the south and settle in this lush forested area surrounded by rivers. Flavia’s mom had 8 brothers and sisters, and her dad had 7, and this sort of huge family, and the stories of how the town grew and the way that a town was constructed really fascinates me. We left for Curitiba on the midnight bed bus, and slept very well for most of the eight hour trip. We then went back to Fiavia’s aunt and uncle’s house and rested for pretty much he last time before the weekend. After this we were busy for all but about four hours each night, when we slept! We spent one night at our friend’s place, where I was asked to prepare Mexican food, so I did! We woke up and went to lunch at another Aunt’s place and then showered, changed and rushed to see a Vale Tudo tournament, which I’ve wanted to see for years. Most of you know how much I like Mixed Martial Arts fighting, a combination of many fighting styles but best known for Muay Thai kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Curitiba is the center of Brazil’s fight schools, since they have a bit more money and can produce world class fighters (two Curitiban fighter hold belts right now in the UFC). It was fun to watch the event with a packed crowd and see some fighters who may be coming to the US soon. We spent a few hours after the fight with some other friends and made it home just before sunrise.

As I awoke on the final day I was presented with the challenge of cooking lunch for 18 of Flavia’s family members. I’ve never really cooked for that many people (not BBQ) and was a bit nervous and a bit overwhelmed. I prepared Congrio, a type of fish, with capers and mushrooms, as well as some pasta with a creamy shrimp sauce and everyone seemed to like it, so I guess things went well. We found everyone asking us when we are going to move back to Brazil, and we don’t really have an answer. We would love to live there but just don’t know what we would do, although everyone tells us that we should open a restaurant. Now that we’re home we know that we have at least five years or so before we would be in the position to make any drastic changes in our lives, so we’ve had to ask them to be satisfied with knowing that we’ll be there in 2012 for Flavia’s Grandma’s 90th birthday when probably 200 or so relatives will come to town. We will also be going in 2014 for the World Cup. Brazil always welcomes us with open arms and leaves us with tears in our eyes. This time is was also the last stop on our amazing trip around the world, and a great way to end it indeed. This is only part one of my last blog entry series, and I will write in a few days to talk about my feeling of coming home and also try to make a bit of a conclusion about our trip.

Posted by JonathanU 09:28 Archived in Brazil Comments (1)

Life in Brazil

It’s always nice to come to Brazil. It’s one of those places where you get off the plane and you are engulfed in a feeling of warmth, a kinda tropical, very relaxed, and extremely friendly kind of warmth. I guess for me, Brazil is like a second home, where as for Flavia, it is a time for her to see her friends and family and catch up on what she’s missed. Even though it is very relaxed here, we certainly don’t get to spend too much time relaxing. Too many aunts, uncles, and cousins prevent us from really sitting down and relaxing, especially Flavia’s uncle Osni. Everyone has a crazy uncle but Tio Osni takes the cake. He’s one of those guys that doesn’t take no for an answer and always has to be sure that you are happy. Therefore there’s too much beer all the time, a light snack turns into a full on raid of the fridge, and the fact that I have to try a bit of everything. Every time we stay in Curitiba we always base ourselves at he and Tia Delize’s house. After a heavy lunch of Feijoada, Brazil’s national dish of a black bean chili with all sorts of pork, I managed to get a quick nap, then Osni woke me up by jumping on the bed and whistling to indicate that it was time to go to see his local soccer team, Atletico Paranaense, play. We headed to the stadium with another uncle and Osni’s daughter’s boyfriend and had a few beers, a Carne do Onça (raw beef on toast with onions, green onions, soy sauce, mustard and hot sauce on top(does wonders for your breath)) and of course a few shots of Cachaça to warm us up. The game was as exciting and intense as I expected, with 10 teams currently within a shot of winning the title, every game is important, and we sang and whistled and jumped and cursed and screamed and jumped while whistling, and cursed while screaming, until Atletico scored with only 5 minutes left and everyone simultaneously jumped, whistled, screamed, cheered, ran, stopped, and went insane.

A late night led into an early morning and I prepared lunch for the family, fish and shrimp and some other goodies. After a nice meal Flavia and I headed to our friend’s house. Gregory and Carol visited us last year and Flavia was best friends with Carol in college, and they always have us and all the rest of the ol’ college gang over whenever we come. This always means lots of good meat, and of course beer. I spent the night with the guys playing Playstation 3 while the girls went through photos and caught up on old times. We woke up early again the next day, still a bit jet lagged and now very tired and headed back to the house and waited for Flavia’s parents to arrive. We celebrated their arrival with Tio Osni forcing a few beers into our hands, then headed out to meet some of the family at a local Churrascaria. For anyone who hasn’t been to a Brazilian BBQ restaurant, I’m sorry, you haven’t lived. Brazilian BBQ is an all you can eat feast of meat, or as I’ve heard it called “Meatapalooza”! Here, you fill up your plate at the salad bar, then sit and wait, as server after server comes by with all different typed of meat, and they slice you off a little piece of everything you want, until you are about to explode. From there, the whole lot of 15 headed down to a local club where another cousin, Felipe, was in the semifinals of a big time “Battle of the Bands” competition. We heard about 10 bands, and theirs was certainly in the top 3, and were likewise rewarded with a trip to the finals. What was most interesting for me was the fact that everyone, cousins, uncles, aunts, my in laws all headed to the VIP section at this bar, and most stayed until 4 or 5 am, only in Brazil!

Finally, after yet another BBQ on Sunday at Tio Newton and Tia Lucy’s house we got in the car to head to Flavia’s hometown Itapejara d’Oeste. Coming here is always nice. This is as small town as it gets, a few roads, about 15000 people, rolling green hills, and peace and quiet. I was impressed as we pulled in to see some of the improvements in the town and immediately scheduled a meeting with the mayor to let him know how much the town has changed since just one year ago. Since Flavia’s dad is the mayor, organizing this meeting was no trouble! I will say though that it’s nice to see politicians doing actual work, as he heads to Brasilia each month to lobby for funds to improve infrastructure. The hospital has been renovated, I toured a school today that Flavia’s brother is building for the city (he is a structural engineer), the uneven brick roads have been pulled up and paved, there is a city park being put in, and nearly 250 new houses are being built for lower class families, all the terrible things you would expect from there dreaded socialist government!

Once we arrive here, it is a bit tricky to find things to do, in between relaxing at Flavia’s grandma’s house, or seeing a few more aunts and uncles. Right now I’m kind of stuck in resume hell. It’s time for me start thinking about work, so I’m really using this time to start applying for jobs and trying to figure out what we’re going to do. To be honest, I am really ready to get back to work, I’m eager to see what kind of jobs are out there for me, and I think that coming back with a clear head and being motivated will hopefully allow someone to take a chance on me. The only thing is, I haven’t really put a resume together for about seven years, but fortunately my friend in Germany is playing email ping pong with me to get it together. One thing that is a true constant here at Flavia’s house is that there will always be food. Lunch is a serious affair here, and there is never a shortage of main courses on the table, like today with lasagna, roasted pork, a big chunk of grilled lamb, salad, beets, rice, and then a few desserts! I love to eat here, everything is a family recipe and the precision of these family meals is amazing, Flavia’s mom never let’s anything be short changed. They work a lot though, with her dad busy all day and night, and Flavia’s mom doing more work for the city than you would expect with such a small population, although a recent city poll did show her with a higher approval rating that Flavia’s dad!

So now here we are, trying to get a job, reading, hanging out with family, finishing up our trip. This is my fifth time in Brazil and my third time in Itapejara d’Oeste and each time we are asked when we are we going to return. It would be an interesting life here, don’t worry, we wouldn’t expect too many of you to come all the way down here to visit us, but really, rural Brazil in the south is something so different than what you may expect.

Posted by JonathanU 20:08 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

Ham... A life changing experience!

The last few days in Spain have been extremely varied, from seeing one of the greatest sites so far on the trip, to shopping and spending like a bunch of tourists, to trying to waste the day without spending anything, and finally just counting down our last few days in Europe. We left Sevilla for Granada not really sure what to expect. I’d had a bit of an argument with the Hostal owners, and tickets to the Alhambra were completely sold out online and on the phone for the holiday weekend. We navigated through the old city and eventually found our place, with parking, as we weren’t really into taking risks with the car at this point. My first impression of Granada was that it reminded me a lot of Cuzco, Peru. It is perched high in the mountains and surrounded by desolate plains; it is lined with cobblestone streets, some poverty, nice churches, and of course tourists, all converging really to see La Alhambra, and then spend their money at the surrounding shops. But these weren’t the typical type of tourists that I was accustomed in Europe, a lot were hippies. These were traveling hippies, with colorful and obviously new pants, white boy dreads, the kind of people that look like they came for a month and stayed for a few years. On the other end of the scale were the weekend tourists, filling the jewelry stores and boutiques. I liked the feel of Granada though. It had an interesting blend of over touristy trinket shops, a huge Muslim population selling shisha and falafel, some nice restaurants for tourists, and then tons of pedestrian only stone streets lined with tapas restaurants, and there rule in Granada is that you get a free tapa if you buy a beer. The attitude is mellow, the streets are all inlayed in white and black stone patters, and the maze of streets up into the hills is overwhelming and tiring. As soon as we were shown to our bare bones room we were told that we could go to an ATM in town that sold Alhambra tickets, so we set out, and were very happy when we were able to buy two tickets for an 8:30 entry time, right when it opened the next morning. The alternative was that we would have to wait in line outside for a few hours hoping to get one of the remaining tickets, and since it was a holiday weekend, we had been expecting to have to begin to wait in the cold at 6 am or so.

We woke up a bit too early the next morning, and while it was still pitch black we headed out of the well located Hostal, which was on the street leading up to the entrance to La Alhambra. When we got to the entrance it was just us two and two very nice Canadian girls and we chatted and watched the sun rise behind the Alhambra, and then we were the first ones let in to see the Alhambra that day. This was a great break for us, because even the Japanese tour groups didn’t get in until 9 am. We hurried through the first room to get ahead of the rest of the people and were amazed at this Moorish Palace filled with trickling water, astonishing ceilings, peaceful courtyards, amazing Arabic phrasing on every wall, and a feeling of peace and calm. I studied La Alhambra a lot when I was in college, but like Machu Picchu, reading about it and seeing pictures really doesn’t capture the amazing detail and scale of how remarkable the palace is. In short, this was my favorite site in Europe. I was just so amazed at the detail that went into every bit that was both beautiful and elegant, but not overly pretentious as is the case in so many Catholic churches or medieval castles that we’ve seen. Also, I can’t stress how magical it was to walk through without other people near us, to be able to stop in the courtyard and just here the water running along the marble aqueducts, or just gaze at the view from the curved doorways of the city down below without being pushed out of the way to make way for someone’s photo. We toured the gardens and the museums after seeing the Nazaries Palace, but the palace really was worth every penny. Go early!
Outside the Palacios Nazaries

Outside the Palacios Nazaries


So now, we’d seen the palace, eaten some tapas and we still had two more nights, and unfortunately there isn’t much else to do in Granada, and the options became even fewer when it started to rain. I finished two books that I’d been struggling with and we went for short walks in between storms. We ate a few tapas and enjoyed the amazingly cheap beer. We worked on buying gift replacements for the ones that were stolen in Lisbon, but mostly we just anticipated heading to Madrid and even started to plan what we were going to do once we got to Brazil. We headed out early to Madrid on a Sunday morning; it was a five hour drive through the rain and into the spread out capital of Spain. The terrain here is pretty desolate, it’s dry and arid, and there seems to be nothing growing. The people in the north say that outside of the cities in the south, the population does not work. This was confirmed to us when we saw nothing going on anywhere. The people outside of the cities live in a socialist system, where the government is forced to subsidize the nearly 20% unemployment rate by giving 400 euros a month to keep their people from starving, and therefore most of those people feel no real incentive to work.

We arrived into Madrid and were assured that we would be safe and free to park on the street for a few days since it was Sunday and then a holiday on Monday, so we wouldn’t get a ticket. We had felt pretty fortunate that we’d found a cheap place to stay in the city, as during holiday weekends, it is packed, and our normal websites didn’t give us many alternatives. A quick Google search pulled up a small B&B, which we booked and were greeted by the older Argentine couple that owns the place. These two are the friendliest, most talkative, and most Argentine people I’ve ever met. They were so sweet, but Eduardo was also quick with the borderline offensive joke or comment, the strongest opinion in the room, and had a thousand hilarious stories or anecdotes for any situation. Our room was small but very cute, everything had been hand painted, there were little antiques everywhere and we felt very happy and welcome there. We didn’t really have many plans, except the plan of doing nothing, but Eduardo told us that we were fools and had to do a whole list of things, because Madrid is the best city in the world, he said, after Buenos Aires of course! We walked through the city on a chilly night and waited for an hour to get into the Prado Museum, supposedly the best painting museum in the world. It was nice, the Goyas, the Velazquez’, and other Spanish painters had a nice distinction from most of the northern European art that we’d seen. I really like the use of shadow and method to give a three dimensional appearance. We’ve seen enough museums already and since it was free night at the museum it was absolutely rammed, so we sped up through the rest of the exhibits, ate a cheap and terrible dinner and headed home.

The other days in Madrid followed the pattern of heading out in the mornings, relaxing and taking a siesta in the afternoon, then eating a cheap dinner. I replenished a few clothes, tossing out well worn t-shirts and other things and shopping in this fashionable city. I liked walking the streets here as the city is spread out but easily accessible by foot as everything tends to lead to exactly where you need to go. We walked the tiny streets in the shopping district, where small stores were giving way to cheap boutiques and vintage stores, and art galleries were placed in the corners of architectural offices, and everyone was happy to talk to us and explain the direction of the story, the city, or the country. We found an amazing market where we at great cheese, croquetas (breaded fried balls of cheese and goodness), fresh and smoked seafood, and lots of great Spanish wine. I then found a wonderful taco bar, with some of the best Mexican food I’ve had in way too long! We talked for an hour while scarfing tacos with the Brazilian woman who worked there, and after a farewell free shot of Tequila, we began to feel like we’d experienced everything that we needed to in Europe. The next morning we got up and headed out to kill the day, with an evening flight ahead of us, we wanted to tire ourselves out a bit. We bought some last minute gifts and stopped by a ham shop. Now ham is taken very seriously in Spain, it is all aged, and it is left hanging in the shops by the hundreds with a little plastic cone underneath to catch any drippings. All of them are covered in a pleasant mold wrap, and although we have eaten ham in sandwiches and such, we haven’t had a plate of just ham so far in Spain. We wanted to buy a package of ham to take with us and we walked through the legs of ham perched on a stand where the gentleman would slice off a micro thin slice for us to try. We tried a few that were good, but then we tried a ¬reserve Iberico, aged three years, and literally it was different than anything I’ve ever tasted in my life. It wasn’t salty, it was just meaty and a bit oily, but it was so soft that it almost dissolved when it hit the tongue. The finish lingered like an amazing wine, and it was so good, that we bought our package, then headed back the previous nights market where we split a plate of ham, enjoying every bite.

So now we leave Europe, what a trip it’s been here. We’ve been here for more than four months, and have really seen so much since we got here. This continent is so varied, from the calm and beautiful beaches of Greece and Croatia to the chaos and screaming of Napoli and the rest of Italy. We’ve seen the structure and eccentric nature of the Germans, and the relaxed and “whenever I get to it” attitude of the French. I’ve learned a lot about history, culture, language, and us, and seen us have the best nights ever, and the most difficult days of the trip. I’ve been blown away by Paris, Salamanca, Barcelona, a glass of wine, a piece of ham, or perfection in the form of Fois Gras, laughed with friends, and had romantic dinners of rabbit and ridiculously good cheese looking out at the Eiffel Tower on our patio in Paris. Most of all though, I think that going through this with Flavia has been the real treat, the growth of our relationship, the merging of our minds, and the way that we have grown so close, so content with each other, and matured our relationship to the point where we can make it through anything, and in some cases have endured some extremely difficult times. I loved Europe, I loved this part of the trip, and I’m so happy with my life and excited about the future and the possibilities and the hopes that we can bring what we’ve learned here to whatever adventure we take on next.

Next stop… Brazil!

Posted by JonathanU 11:12 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Ahhh, the Beach

We were pretty eager to leave Lisbon. Even though we stayed in probably the best hostel on the planet and met some really cool people, the whole window event really soured our time here. I think Lisbon is a truly beautiful city, and well worth a visit, as I think it’s often overlooked by people visiting Europe. I took the Metro early in the morning across town to the Renault dealer where we left the car overnight to be repaired, then drove it back through dreadful morning rush hour and parked it in a secure lot. We finished breakfast and packed the car and drove south, without much as far as plans. We were eager to take five or six days and just relax a bit by the beach in a small town, just kind of put the events behind us, rest up a bit, and prepare for the last push through the south of Spain. As we drove down the coast we bleak through the bleak landscape a bit inland, always with mountains to our left. The small buildings in the many towns were all painted white, and every once in a while we’d get a peek at the blue ocean nearby. Many of the towns were rundown and some even looked abandoned, proof of the urban shift that occurs when a country’s economy sours. The roads were empty and we cruised along until the highway finally spit us out along the coast near the city of Sines. We drove by tons of vacant parking lots with staircases leading down to small coves and beaches, packed during the summer or weekend, but now just a bunch of desolate brown patches. We selected one at random to spend a few hours. The coastline here is made up entirely of cliffs, and then every once in a while a bit of sand will remain creating a beach with towering walls, sheltering it from the cool autumn breeze. We relaxed on the beach in the sun, although the water was a bit too cold to go in without a wetsuit. It felt really nice to just kind of put Lisbon behind us, although we are both now pretty weary of leaving the car anywhere out of site, especially if there is anything in it. One thing that has proved to be a great purchase was a small plug in cooler we bought when we left Paris. This has come in handy for us to store our food and keep our lunch things cool so we can make lunch wherever we are.

We planned on stopping somewhere along the western coast for the night, but in the end, we continued down towards Lagos and gave a quick call to our reserved apartment to see if we could stay one extra night. As it is currently low season they were more than happy so after a bit of trouble finding the place we settled in and were very happy about the great studio that we had for the next five nights. It’s felt good to pay a minimum price, and be in an empty apartment complex that looked more like a villa and feel like we were really getting the most out of our money and were going to be able to relax for the next few days. And relax we did. Although two of the days were a bit cloudy, we still went to the beaches nearby or a short drive away, went for walks on the cliffs, or just hung out by the pool, cold beer in hand. I enjoyed making dinner with ingredients from the market and using the grill. The coastline is very dramatic, with high sandstone cliffs towering over the deep blue water. There are tons of trails all around the coast, so it was easy enough for us to just walk a bit and really experience the beauty of the region. I think that one thing that especially excited us was the element of surprise. We really had no idea what to expect from Lagos, we’d heard it was going to be packed with tourists, and there were some English travelers, but overall it was very quiet. We heard that the town wasn’t very nice, but we found that there was some culture and feeling beyond the sprawling timeshare resorts. I think mostly we were just unprepared for how beautiful it was going to be there, and we haven’t had a few days to just sit on the beach, read, and relax since Croatia.

It’s surprising how officially tired we are now. I’m not sure if it’s because the end is near so we’re slowing down or if it’s just kind of time for us to have a place to sit and do nothing, or even do something, as long as it’s not just walk around, look at churches, look at a castle, etc. I think we are both really looking forward to getting to Brazil, to be with family and to just not have an agenda, or a list of things to see. Although it has been great to have a car, the hours of sleeping on buses or just bouncing along on a train are something that I miss, although getting to and from the stations was always an annoying adventure. Instead the stress of driving has been tough, and especially inside of cities has fatigued me and frustrated me at times. We’ve now put about 4000 miles on the car, and have about 700 left, it will feel good to return the car and not have to deal with it anymore. Also, we aren’t that amazed by things anymore. Maybe we’re spoiled but I think we’ve seen everything we need to see. We absolutely refuse to pay to enter churches so most of the interiors are off limits, but most of the time I can imagine just what is inside. To me, that was what I liked the most about, say, Salamanca, where the church was beautiful, had some originality, and was free. It’s kind of like when you go to classic art museums, I mean really, how many Madonna and Child paintings can you see before they all start to be too similar?

After five days in Lagos eating nice dinners, and becoming sick of basic sandwiches for lunch, we packed up and headed back east, to Spain. We stopped once along the south coast to relax at one more beach. This one was particularly spectacular with a staircase that funneled through the cliffs and spilled out onto the beach. The beaches were particularly nice for Flavia who had felt it a bit odd traveling so much and not really seeing beaches. For me, nearly the entire final six months of my South America trip were spent at the beach, and I think most importantly while backpacking this gives a great excuse to spend a whole day without really spending much money.

We arrived into Sevilla in the early evening, and drove right by the hostel where there was no parking and kept going, weaving down streets no wider than the car, then kept going, directed left or right, with no way to return on the multitude of one way streets, until about 20 minutes later when we managed to find a parking garage. We haven’t walked with all of our stuff for a great distance for a while, and while wandering lost through the alleys with our packs on, without a map, trying to find our hostel, I was reminded of the redeeming qualities of having the car. Sevilla reels nice, the temperature is very agreeable, and the old town is huge, and great for getting lost. There are a fair number of tourists here, I think that the summer is too hot and the winter is too cold so many come during this time of year. We crammed as much as we could into one and a half days and two nights, basically just wandering the alleys, eating tapas that make us miss San Sebastian, and seeing something that we haven’t seen yet in the bullring and Torero museum. Tomorrow we are off for three nights in Granada followed by three nights in Madrid before flying out of Madrid to Brazil.

Posted by JonathanU 15:38 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

Joao, Manuel, and a lot of broken glass

After a few days in Portugal, I have completely become enamored with how distinct this country is compared to the rest of Europe. This country feels much more South America than Europe. Perhaps a lot of this comes from the fact that Portugal has been in the depths of terrible economic troubles for the past 10 years and, as a few locals told us, the problem is often overlooked by the EU. We could see the poverty immediately as we drove into Porto, where crumbling and vacant apartment buildings sit next to run down slums with drying clothes on lines outside showing the only signs of life. There are a lot more homeless people here, and the Brazilian tradition of people standing on the street, “helping” you park for a small tip. We pulled into Porto with the normal difficult task of navigating the ridiculously narrow and unusually steep cobblestone streets that seem to even confuse our GPS about which way they go. We have been trying to save a bit more money, and we decided that now would be the first time to stay in a dorm since we were in New Zealand, and did it for one whole night! I drove the car outside of town to park it for free, and save the $45 per day to park it in a lot, which is more than we were paying for our accommodation. As I drove out towards the free parking area, I chuckled as I saw the billboards promoting the presidential candidates, one named Manuel and one named Joao. Flavia had earlier told me that Brazilians have the impression that there are only two male names in Portugal, Joao and Manuel.

Porto was a nice change from Spain. The city is rugged and gritty and the old town shows the potential and past beauty of amazing days in the Port trade and the scars of its decline and the onset of poverty. We wandered along the Douro River in the evening stopping at a Port producer Vasconcellos for a quick taste as we waited until we were hungry for dinner. I’ve never been too fond of Port, I think it’s too sweet and has too much alcohol to find a lot of distinct flavors. That being said I haven’t tasted too many, so it was nice to get a nice introduction to Port and we tasted a few white ports, a ruby, and then a reserve Tawny. I started to appreciate the aging process and its results as we tasted young and old Ports, and I can now say that after travelling through Port I did gain an appreciation for what I was tasting and do plan on having a few bottles of Port tucked away once we get home. We ate a terrible dinner along the river, food that was too heavy, salty, and fatty. I had the specialty, Francesinha, which was four or five types of mystery meat, breaded and fried, served with a soggy piece of bread on top and soaked in cheesy gravy. It was so heavy, that halfway through, I just had to quit and move to the other side of the table. The two locals next to us started talking to us, and even though only one of them controlled most of the conversation for the next few hours, we had a great time learning a bit about the true Porto, the economic situation, and the general feel of life in the North of Portugal. At a few minutes after 10, we were treated to an amazing pyrotechnics show, as Portugal, Spain, and Italy set out in a fireworks competition, each with their own show lasting 20 minutes. These were by far the best fireworks I have ever seen, far above anything I’ve experienced and each country had one set of fireworks that we so powerful that they rattled the ears and blew my hair back when they were detonated.

The next day we toured the old city. This maze of narrow streets really gives the feel of walking streets that have changed little in the last 100 years. We went to the market, which was the shabbiest we’ve seen since Cambodia, and bought a few things for dinner, then saw and snapped a few photos of the typical sites. I really like the feel of Porto, this city that hopefully is turning the corner as many students come here and hopefully will stay and try to help this once beautiful city to become reinvigorated. We cooked a nice dinner that night, hoping that each arriving group of people would not be put in the two extra bunks in our 4 bed room. Sitting around the hostel later we met two Swiss guys who ended up being in our room, Flavia and the three dudes… lucky her! They were great though, Dominic and Sony, who were especially conscious of their noise and very friendly as they were finishing a two week surf holiday. We also met an Australian couple, also on a round the world trip, and it was fun to tell stories and to chat with them, I gave them as much information as I could about South America as they were headed there soon. Unfortunately I’ve sold all my copies of my book that I have left, and now that I’m done with them, I’ve found a bunch of eager readers to sell them! We woke up early the next day and headed up along the Douro to the Douro valley where the wine region is. We stopped immediately at the first winery that we found along the river and were met by a little old man named Joao who was very kind and poured a few tastes of their family produced Port. We did learn our lesson from past regions and called to make some reservations, but only one place returned our call and we drove upriver towards the eastern part of the region. Although the wine may not be the best here, this region is the most beautiful and dramatic wine region I have ever seen. The now orange and red grape vines are built on to terraces that are dug by hand into the mountain. They do this so that the precious bit of top soil doesn’t float away when the rains hit and also so that the land is a bit more workable. The huge steps that are only one or two vines wide line the area along both sides of the river and the grapes are produced in the family tradition that seems to have spread from many generations. The people here look like life hasn’t changed much since they were kids, and a noticeable aging population makes up the tiny towns in the hills here.

Back at the hostel later that evening we were a bit tired from the long day of driving. It’s difficult to drive those narrow mountain roads, one time taking a 6 mile stone road curving down through the vineyards towards the river, not really knowing where we were, the whole time, our GPS was trying to tell us to turn around. Flavia decided to call it a night, but I decided to head out with the two Swiss guys to have a few drinks in the surrounding neighborhood. The streets were packed, everyone out enjoying the warm fall night. I really enjoyed seeing the crowd that was eager and openly drinking, but as usual, there were no fights, no “tough guys”, and just a general great vibe running through the packed streets.

We left Porto the next day for Lisbon, a few hours south. We booked at a great hostel, in a private room, and settled in, then brought the car down to the waterfront where there is free parking. We walked back along the pedestrian streets then headed up to the castle high upon the hill. Although we are a bit castled out, and even a bit more old town fatigued, we enjoyed this castle, mostly for the beautiful view from every turret. This is a city of beautiful and ornate plazas, well maintained old buildings, and a classy pedestrian area. There is money here, or maybe a lot of debt, but this city has a much more regal feel than Porto. We took our car the next day to the town of Sintra located in the hills outside of the city where the royalty had their summer houses in this lush and hilly oasis just a few kilometers out of the hectic chaos of the city. This area was nice, but we felt a bit inundated by the crowd of Japanese and Russian tourists, who seem to be everywhere, and all talking at once. We found one mansion outside of town that had no coaches parked outside, so we decided to park there and walk through the gardens, before taking a quick drive to the westernmost point in Europe then drove home along the coast. We parked the car in the same spot then walked back to the hostel.

The following afternoon we took the train to Belem, Portugal’s natural port that saw many explorers set off on their way to claim territory for the crown. We saw the monuments and were a bit annoyed by the heat and crowds and did as expedited as an excursion as possible. On the train ride home we passed the car, which was parked past two fences and a few railroad tracks. As we passed I surveyed it, because when we went by the first time on the way to Belem, I thought for a minute that I noticed something a bit off with the front window, although in a speeding train it was hard to really take notice. This time I saw and I was pretty certain that the passenger window had been smashed. Flavia was late for her haircut so I got off the train and walked to the car, hoping that I’d seen incorrectly, hoping that Ivory was ok. Nope, she wasn’t, and I had seen correct. Even though we took everything out of the front of the car, some asshole still decided to smash the window, and unfortunately he got into the trunk to the car and managed to steal a bag of clothes and gifts, and a few bottles of wine and Port. I was pissed, and not really knowing what to do, I drove a bit and past a few transit police who told me where the nearest police station was. I called our car program and they told me to get a police report to I went to the station. There, three guys named Manuel and two Joao’s were outside smoking and they joked with me about my Brazilian accent before then tried to give me directions to the tourist police, where I could fill out a report. I didn’t have a map or a GPS so I really had no idea how to get where they were telling me to go, and finally one Joao and a Manuel jumped into a police car and escorted me to the police station, where we filed a report, and Flavia came up to meet me, and we parked the car in a secure lot, and headed back to the hostel where a nice cold beer felt great. The girls at the hostel were so upset about what happened, but I figured that we were lucky that this had only happened now and the stupid thieves really didn’t get much.

We went to the Renault dealer the next morning where a guy named Joao was a bit unreceptive as we showed up, and we spent four hours with them and on the phone with our insurance before everything was in place and we knew that the repair would be done. We extended our stay one night and then headed out to find the cords for the Iphone and GPS for the car. In the end, we made it almost 9 months before anything bad happened to us, but I’m just glad that this is almost over. We’ll pick up the car and get out of here tomorrow, everything was paid for, and I think this is just a lesson learned. At least this happened in a country where we could communicate, and I am very thankful for George at the EuropeLease program headquarters who spoke perfect English and Portuguese and got the job taken care of for us, with as little of a headache as possible, we even get a free carwash!

Posted by JonathanU 16:34 Archived in Portugal Comments (1)

Pintxos and rain

We left Barcelona tired and a bit out of it after our late night exploring the nightlife of that great city. I was also a bit… I don’t know… pensive, about an incident I’d had the previous night, where a simple disagreement about, of all things, the Falkland Islands, led to me being called one of the insults that can really make me lose it. Being labeled and “Ignorant American F*ck” by a British woman when I challenged the right of Britain’s ownership of the Archipelago really got to me. I may be a lot of things, and I’ll let most of them slide, but I don’t think I’m ignorant, and especially not about South America. This is really the second time during this whole trip when where I’m from has been thrown in my face as an insult, and I think for me, it’s the entire lumping of Americans into one category of person is really just petty and, well, for lack of a better word, ignorant! I didn’t let it ruin my night but it did stay on my mind, and Flavia and I did have a few conversations about the ease and spontaneous manner of how she let the insult just fly out without really having any idea who I was, other than the fact that I was from the US.

That’s that though, it’s in the past, I just thought that it was an interesting experience. We drove through the pouring rain on the highway towards Pamplona, desperately searching for music on the Iphone that we haven’t listened to 1 million times. No matter how many songs I have on there, we’ve listened to all of them a few times. The combination of nights relaxing listening to our little portable speakers (which was one of the best things we brought), driving in Campee, and now in Ivory, we have completely exhausted our musical selections, and although we try to pick up a few songs here and there, we’re ready for some new tunes. We made it to Pamplona exhausted around nightfall, and headed out through the mist to the Tapas bars located around the central plaza. Tapas are called Pintxos (tx=ch) here, and are the traditional fare when heading out for the night. Many places have platters on the bar, and with the honor system in place, you order a few or pick them for yourself, get a glass of wine or beer, and then report what you had at the end to pay. Most cold Pintxos cost about 1.60 to 3 Euros. We liked this, tasting a few bites of Jamon Serrano, stomaching a bit of fishy Anchovy, seeing the 100 ways in which they can prepare Bacalhao (cod), and then all the little things in between. The next morning we again wandered the streets, getting a bit of exercise and seeing the town before the afternoon rain was due to move into the area. Pamplona is nice, for about 355 days out of the year it’s a relaxing and small city with the typical narrow cobblestone streets, a few plazas, a nice city park and a rich history which includes a lot about Hemmingway. During the other few days of the year, this city is one of the craziest in the world, when thousands of people descend on the central area for the festival of San Fermin, aka The Running of the Bulls. I was here during San Fermin when I first came to Europe, so it was interesting to see the place away from the chaos, and I remembered the packed and dirty streets filled with drunken revelers sloshing through the puddles of urine, red wine, raw eggs and flour, and the sound of the ferocious bulls as they tore up the streets on the way to the bullring.

We headed further north to the coastal town of San Sebastian for what we hoped would be a few relaxing days soaking up the sun on the beaches and eating wonderful Pintxos all night. Unfortunately two things messed up the first part of our plans, lots of rain, and the fact that it was a holiday weekend and the town was absolutely packed. We learned our lesson in Barcelona and researched a place to park our car outside of the city center to avoid the enormous fees, something that we hadn’t really thought about when we got the car. We spend most of the days cooped up in our room, reading, playing on the computer, and being annoyed at the extremely loud hostel on the floor above us. We really started to feel a bit of travel fatigue setting in, perhaps intensified by cabin fever, and we are starting to look forward more and more to settling down in Brazil for a few weeks before heading home. The nights in San Sebastian were great. We would head out around 8 to the Pintxos bars located all over the area. If I could give one recommendation for anyone who would want to come to this area it would be to find the bars that serve hot Pintxos, which means that they are made to order. Most of these include slow cooked meat, or wonderful hot cheese, or our favorite… Fois Gras. Our two favorite restaurants turned out to be related to each other, and we had amazing Fois Gras, seared and served with apple sause, beef cheek, goat cheese, and Flavia’s favorite, slow roasted duck breast. I love the wine as well, 2 Euros maximum for a nice sized glass of red wine, or the local specialty called Txakoli, which is a lightly fizzed young white wine that is poured holding the bottle a foot or so above the glass to make it fizz. On top of the great food, we really enjoyed talking to the bartenders, who helped us to pick out what to order, and kept us entertained until we were 30 Euros poorer and completely stuffed.

All in all, the food in San Sebastian was the highlight of this stop. The rest of the city was a bust, worth a day or two, but three nights with that weather was just too much, so we were happy to begin a very long drive back south to La Rioja, for a quick stop in the Tempranillo capital of the world. We tasted a few wines at a couple of Tapas places, usually having two wines and a Pintxo at each restaurant, then headed out of town to a winery for a quick tour and a tasting. We then continued our drive another four hours to Salamanca where we craved a home cooked meal and a good night of sleep in a comfortable bed. Salamanca turned out to be quite a surprise, as we woke up to a cold dry desert morning, and wandered through the absolutely beautiful old town. This city, which was supposed to just be a quick stop, turned out to be probably the nicest old town we’ve seen in Europe, and we’ve seen a lot of them. It wasn’t touristy, had a great university vibe to it, and the detail on the facades and the architecture that lined the narrow streets was spectacular. We continued on though, determined to make it to our destination, Porto. It was exciting to drive through the mountains into Portugal, twisting and speeding over high bridges as we descended towards the banks of the Douro river, on the way to the home of Port and bacalao, but I’ll save that for next time.

Posted by JonathanU 17:43 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Barcelona

We were both very excited as we pulled into Barcelona. We booked a room in a shared apartment just a few blocks from Las Ramblas (the main tourist area), and we immediately unpacked our gear and headed out for a walk. We stopped first at the La Boqueria market and pulled up a stool at the Pinotxo Bar, a famous tapas joint jammed with locals and tourists. The couple next to us was on their honeymoon and she is a pastry chef and he is the sous chef at Nobu in NYC, so when they said they were eating here for the second time, I knew that the place had to be great! We ordered garbanzo beans as soft as butter, grilled shrimp that were in the sea that morning, baby octopus and beans that left us speechless, and rabbit bits with so many unknown spices, I couldn’t figure out the recipe if my life depended on it. I was inspired by the meal and walking around the market with JP, and I bought some great ingredients for dinner that night. We dropped the things off at the apartment and headed out to see some of the sites and take advantage of the perfect weather. We started off at the Block of Discord and the Casa Mila, designed by Gaudi. I think that Gaudi is a sensational architect, and I love the way that he challenged society and tradition with his buildings and his way of letting his ego decide that what he was going to create would be accepted. We then went to the Sagrada Familia Church, completely enamored by the thousands of tiny details on every spire, corner, doorway, and wall.

The next morning we headed out early to the Parc Guell, which Gaudi designed originally with plans of creating an upper-class gated community. In the end the park only has a few buildings, some sculpture, and a space for the marked and walkways. The park was absolutely rammed and it was very hot, so we made the quick decision to head to Barcelonetta, the beach area. We ate a quick lunch after taking the metro and settled down on the sand. It was hot but there was a cool breeze, and it seemed like mostly foreigners on the beach. After a few minutes we met up with Marion, a German who lives in Barcelona whom we met while we were back in Campee driving around Australia. We caught up with her and enjoyed the afternoon on the beach. I was inspired from sitting on the sand all day to make some seafood for dinner, so we headed back to the market. I’ve had some strange things happen at all the markets on the trip, from leading two kids in absolute awe around the market in Fiji, to being yelled at repeatedly in Palermo for trying to pick my own fruit, to feeling more cramped and hot than I’d ever felt in my life in Cambodia, but this one was a bit over the top! I stopped at a great looking fish stand and picked up two gambas (prawns) resting on a bed of ice. They are pink and I took a nice smell to see if they were as fresh as they looked. The woman who runs the place decided that I would get the wrath of her anger and she absolutely freaked out on me. She screamed at me about my decision to smell her shrimp, and I think she was a bit surprised when I was able to answer her in perfect Spanish, challenging her for trying to sell something when I wasn’t able to check the quality. I told her that I would buy them and she told me that I wouldn’t be buying anything from her… ever! I walked around the corner in disbelief and found another stand, the price was a bit higher, but I told them I wanted some shrimp but couldn’t decide. One of the three workers there picked up the ones that I was looking at and handed them to me and told me to smell how fresh they were. I froze, was this a trick, was I setting myself up for something. He insisted and I smelled the wonderful whiff of seafood plucked from the sea just a few hours before. I told him about the incident at the previous stall and the three of them started laughing hysterically and told me that “Oh yah, that’s Doña Rosales, she hates everyone, including herself”! Happy with the prawns I headed to a Bolivian produce seller and got the freshest salad ingredients in the whole market.

I cooked the prawns in a simple manor, as I’d seen them cooked at the Tapas place the day before. I cooked them in a very hot pan with just a bit of butter and olive oil, with the shells on and flipped them once, put some salt and pepper on them and a splash of lemon. They were great. Once I took them out I added my own creation, and put a bit more butter in, a dollop of crème fresh and mixed that around to put on top of our potatoes, creating a creamy shrimp sauce that worked great! We washed it down with some Rose and had an incredible meal for two for fewer than 20 Euros.

The last two days, we did something a bit out of the ordinary from our normal Europe day to day. We went to museums, yes plural. We went to Picasso museum in Barcelona and I was amazed at the collection and the amazing work that he put together in his life. I love the style of pushing the envelope, challenging society, and using ego, it seems that the Catalan blood boils like this for every creative person born there. We also drove 90 minutes outside of town the next day to Figueres, to Salvador Dali’s hometown to see his museum. I love Dali, he is probably my favorite artist of all time, and this visit was really special, even with the hordes of tours blocking parts of the exhibits and just being generally rude and annoying. The work is sensational, beyond belief, and one floor above creative. Plus, the way that he set up the museum makes it even better, with no sort of organization, no plan, no guide, and a way of taking you around to the same place you’ve already been for the specific purpose of making you notice something that you missed the first time around. It was Friday night, and we had rested in the afternoon, so we headed out with Marion for a great seafood dinner at a restaurant where you pick everything you want from the bed of ice and they cook everything after you’ve picked it. She then took us out to the Barri Gotic, where the narrow streets and little alleys hide hundreds of Tapas restaurants, bars and clubs. We had a great time after meeting up with two guys from Napoli who are friends of Marion, and we stayed out way past our bedtime, making the early rise the next morning and the four hour drive to Pamplona a bit tough.

Overall I really liked Barcelona, but there were some things that were a bit odd. First, this isn’t Spain, as any local will tell you. Catalonia has its own culture, its own language, which we could understand, and the Catalonians seem a bit standoffish and weary of anyone who isn’t Catalonian. We went out for a drink one night with a friend of mine who worked at Rosenblum a few years ago, and she said that it had literally been months since she had spoken Spanish. Also, at the bars, it was all Europeans not from Spain, all expats, but they told me that the locals go out away from the foreigners that live there. The anti Madrid/Spain feeling was noticeable on the streets as well. A week before that there had been elections and the people, unhappy with the new taxes and laws, decided to smash windows on all of the Madrid owned banks and businesses. The sentiment is that the Catalonians work harder, make more money, and in the end pay taxes that only go to help the lazy in other states. I really had no idea that this separatist mentality is so alive here. Also, there are many abandoned apartment buildings that have been taken over by “Gente sin Casa”, literally people without homes who move in, steal the electricity and have found ways around the law so they cannot be evicted. Finally, I was a bit shocked at the amount of petty crime on the streets. Nothing happened to us but apparently everyone else gets the wallet snatched while visiting here. There are tons of scams, pickpockets everywhere and very few police, who are required to speak Catalan, but most of the Catalonians refuse to work for the federal government. I’m very happy we started in Barcelona and can’t wait to see what else Spain has, especially now that we’ve headed northwest to Basque country.

Posted by JonathanU 17:33 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

The South of France

We packed up from Sebastian’s house and headed east for the Rhone, one of our favorite wine regions in the world. Somewhere between following a herd of cattle through a small town and being told to turn down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere in the Rhone Alps, I decided to disregard the advice that Richard, our GPS voice, was giving, and even after the glaring looks of the bearded mountain man who stared at us as he passed, I knew that, no, no, hell no, I wasn’t going down that muddy track in the middle of a rainstorm! I had illusions of Flavia trying to put the car in first gear while I pushed with all my might as I tried to get the car out of France’s biggest mud pit (also known as the national soccer team’s latest World Cup performance), and Sebastian’s advice of “be very careful when going through the Rhone mountains, it’s very easy to get lost”. We tacked on an extra hour to the ride but eventually made it to our beautiful Formule 1 Hotel. Formule 1 is the most budget of budget chains in France, and at 29 Euro a night, it’s worth every dollar… or something like that. It’s basic beyond basic, just a sink in the room, a bit of hair from the floor on the comforter, and bathrooms that make you wish there was an outhouse, but it’ll have to do at this point in the trip.

The next morning we headed for the very north of the Rhone region, to taste some wines in Condrieu and Cote Rotie. These regions have their vines planted on steep slopes running up the west bank of the Rhone River, and it seems to be almost untouched by tourism. We were only able to taste at a few wine shops, because most wineries are not equipped to give tastings during harvest. The wine here is mostly Syrah, blended with a bit of Viognier, and the whites are Viognier, then a bit further south in Hermitage they are Roussanne and Marsanne blends. The wine was tasty and I was glad to get to this area, although the prices are a bit high, and we left empty handed knowing that further south we would certainly find some great wine at some decent prices.

We headed down the main highway that cuts through the Rhone. Although highways in France require you to pay a toll, I am amazed at the condition that they are in, it’s actually like you are getting your money’s worth. They all seem to be freshly repaved, without a shrub or a weed on the shoulder, and there isn’t a pothole or crack anywhere in the whole system. There is also a well kept rest/picnic area about every 10 miles, when you need a break. When it’s time to pay, simply chuck a bit of change into the basket (they give change) or just insert your credit card and you are on your way. In fact, in France it seems that everything is being upgraded, fixed, or renovated, and I’m amazed at the effort that the government is going through to create jobs, keep the construction industry going, and keep the country out of the mess that we are in (damn socialists!).

We arrived at Remi’s house in the early afternoon, just after siest time. I worked with Remi at Rosenblum during my first year while he did an internship and it was good to see him after seven years. Remi is a Frenchman with a California attitude, with a Bayou boy’s love for blues, and a talent for wine making that can only be born within a Frenchie! His house is a spectacular 250 year old Chateau that he and his wife, Marion, have been rebuilding stone by stone for the past five years. They bought the place in a state of complete rubble, then tore down a bunch more, insulated it, and have been slowly putting it together, creating a huge, beautiful, and classy home. Remi is the winemaker at the only nearby winery in Orgnac l’Aven, and his pregnant wife works in a hospital lab 45 minutes away. This area is full of Provencial style towns, full of narrow streets, stone houses, and a beautiful castle on the top of the hills, allowing the kings to survey their land. Remi and Marion were more than welcoming, as she cooked for us and he loaded up our car with free wine. I guess it wasn’t all free, as the second morning we were there I actually awoke at 7am, a bit weary from the wine from the previous night, and went and dug out a tank at his winery. Digging out a tank involves climbing in through the porthole and using a shovel and a rake, actually digging out all the leftover grape skins and seeds, breathing a very healthy dose of CO2, getting a few blisters on the hands, and a great workout.
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Remi was able to take off from work early that afternoon and we zoomed over to the east side of the Rhone to do some wine tasting. We started in Chateauneuf-du-Pape where we were very disappointed by the wine we tasted at our first stop. Here they blend 13 grapes, although a great majority is Grenache, but as Remi explained, too many wineries rely on the region’s name recognition instead of producing actually good wine. At the second winery we were poured a glass of wine that was extremely corked and then had to convince the reluctant pourer that yes, indeed, it was corked, and the fact that she only have a tiny bit of wine in the bottle meant that she have been pouring corked wine all day! We sped out of there towards Remi’s favorite region, Vinsobres, one which we had never heard of. The wine here was great, fruit forward, Syrah based blends with some Grenache, aged in new oak, and the price… about 7 or 8 Euros for the best bottles! It was great to see all the old men, coming in on a Friday with their plastic jugs, and filling them at the gas station style pump and paying by the liter. We made a quick stop at “Le Cave” in Gigondas on the way home, where they have 50 wines to taste for free.

We cooked dinner for Remi and Marion on our last night in Orgnac. I had to argue with the butcher not to cut the steak widthwise, and I think he called me crazy as he cut up a chicken that I bought as well. We stocked up on beautiful ingredients from the local market, and I was happy to prepare Remi’s requested meal, BBQ. I made some steak South American style, just a bit of course salt, a crack of pepper, and taking it off without cutting it open. I then made my father in law’s chicken recipe and my famous garlic mashed potatoes and we ate and drank outside in their courtyard, happily enjoying local wine (except Marion who drank soda), and Remi pulled out his guitar and a bottle of Chartreuse, and I sang all his favorites as he played the blues and classic rock while drinking the ever so strong green liquid.

We continued south the next morning towards Provence. We had another place to stay, at my friend’s mother’s place in Le Luc. I’ve known Sylvie and her husband Dean since I was about 16, and it was nice to finally have a real conversation with them! They live in a beautiful Mediterranean style house outside the city, with a nice 2-acre vineyard in the back yard, a pool, and plenty of room for us to crash for a few nights. They were more than welcoming, and we really enjoyed the amazing French food that Sylvie prepared for us, homemade Quiche, Provencial style lamb, and braised rabbit. We spent one day tasting the local specialty, crisp, light, pink Rose, and the other day driving along the beautiful Cote d’Azur all the way up to Monaco. We stopped in Nice and after spending 45 minutes navigating the streets looking for parking, we made it to the last 15 minutes of their market, then snapped a few photos from a viewpoint, ate a quick lunch and got out of there. The town that day was inundated by a few cruise ships and we never like the atmosphere in a town when it’s swamped with “cruisers”. We then drove to the tiny city and country of Monaco. We pulled into the nicest parking garage in the world and then walked the streets, marveling at the 100000 dollar jewelry in the windows, the Ferraris, Maseratis, and Bentleys. We walked for a bit, then I drove on the famous Formula 1 track that curves through the city, before we took the beautiful highway home, through tunnels and over bridges, until we made it back to Le Luc.

We left France two days later, and I have to say that this country far exceeded my expectations. I loved it here, the food, the people, of course the wine, pretty much everything was perfect, and the people seem to strive to reach perfection with what they do, whether it be making perfect wine, stocking only the best ingredients at the market, placing a plate of perfection in front of you at their restaurant, everything done… right. I wish I could speak French, I really do, and I want to learn. France is a country that we could live in, retire in, or just spend a few months here one year making wine or just enjoying the good life, which is plentiful throughout the country.

Posted by JonathanU 21:00 Archived in France Comments (0)

Wine, food poisoning, and going way off the map

I was extremely excited about getting to Bordeaux. This is the perfect place to start this sort of “Wine Route” that we will follow until the end of our Europe adventure, which will take us through some of the best wine regions in the world. Bordeaux is the most recognized and most prestigious one, and ever since he Dutch drained this marshland leaving rocky, well draining ground, this region has become the foremost producer of the noblest of noble grapes in the world. I was a bit nervous as we arrived here, because again we were arriving somewhat unprepared. “This ain’t Napa”, as one blogger said, there aren’t welcoming tasting rooms everywhere. This is a land of appointments, reservations, and people looking down their noses at anyone who doesn’t look like they are going to fork out 2000 Euros for a bottle of 2005 Chateau Lafitte-Rothschild. Flavia and I weren’t deterred though and after settling into a hostel in Blanqueford, in the heart of the Medoc, we walked to a nearby winery. We were welcomed as it was a smaller and out of the way winery and we tasted a few wines while doing our best to understand the French pourer. He was very kind but a bit frustrated that he couldn’t say everything that he wanted to, so he sent us out to the winery where two Brazilian girls worked, so that they could continue to tell the story of the wine from there. This was a great move, as we made friends with the girls and spent an hour, then a few more later that night, drinking and talking wine, reminiscing about Brazil and just enjoying speaking Portuguese for a little while.

We made it out early the next day and drove north through Margaux stopping at a winery where we got the expected Bordeaux welcome. A woman took one look at me, said we needed an appointment, and without even looking at her computer, told me they were full and that we couldn’t do a tour that day. I was a bit annoyed, and slightly worried that this trip would be a bust, and headed down the street to another winery. We pulled up to Chateau Kiwan and I decided to take a different approach this time. I whipped out the ol’ Diageo business card and the woman smiled and said that of course we could have a tasting and smiled and spoke perfect English and started pouring us some wonderful wine. The wine in Bordeaux is comprised of five grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, and just a few still producing Malbec. The wines in Margaux are usually an even blend making up about 90-95% blend of Merlot and Cabernet, with the remaining percent using Petite Verdot and Cabernet Franc. To be perfectly honest, I’m not much of a fan of Bordeaux wines, I find some of them to be a bit light for me, but these wines really show the quality of the region, the wonderful soil, the effect of cool evenings and warm days creating a long growing season, the mix of traditional and modern wine making techniques, and the care and precision that has been used here by families for generations. At our next winery we were greeted the same way, by someone speaking perfect English, who was happy to just pour and tell stories, show us around their beautiful winery, spend an hour or so telling us everything, take our picture, and then send us on our way with the understanding that we weren’t planning on filling our trunk with bottles of their wine.

After lunch we stopped by Chateau Pontet Canet where we were welcomed on a tour with just two other Americans and they drove us around explaining some of their odd farming techniques like the use of horses in the vineyard because the grower feels that the tractors are compacting the soil, and also the use of some biodynamic techniques for picking or using less sulfite spray. This wine was spectacular though, we were poured a glass of their 2002 vintage, and as we were now in the Paulliac region, the wine was more heavily Cabernet Sauvignon based, which made me happy! This was one of the best Bordeaux wines I had ever tasted and the day ended very well. I was pleased with the reception we got all in all, and it was probably a lot due to the fact that I worked in the industry. If you are going to Bordeaux or any foreign wine region I would strongly suggest reserving for tastings ahead of time.

We found a room in the run down town of Paulliac and settled in for a quick rest. As I laid down I started to instantly feel like I had a fever, and my stomach started to cramp. I shivered and felt warmer and warmer as the minutes past. Flavia and I had eaten the same thing for the past two days, so I couldn’t figure out what I was getting, I thought I just needed something to eat. We walked down the street but after one block I was too weak and my legs hurt too much so we turned back to get the car. As we started the car, I had no coordination and couldn’t get the car into gear, finally we drove around the block but I was too out of it so pay attention to the road so we turned around, went back to our room and I went to sleep. Two hours later I woke up and hurried to the bathroom, vomited, fell back to sleep, then woke up 8 hours later feeling 95% better. It was a strange and very powerful case of food poisoning that could only have been caused by a hardboiled egg on a salad, that I ate, and Flavia didn’t. It wasn’t pretty, but I guess eight months into the trip, it was bound to happen sooner or later.

As we drove towards the other side of Bordeaux towards St. Emilion, I was relieved that my illness was just for one night and that I would still be able to taste when we went to the wine shops. Bordeaux is split by two rivers and we had already tasted on the left bank, so we drove around the city of Bordeaux and towards the right bank, where the wines are more Merlot heavy, and as we all know, “I’m not drinking any f*%king MERLOT”! I pulled over to pick up a disheveled hitchhiker who was late for work and guided us into the town, forever grateful for me dropping him off in front of his wine garage and promising me a free tasting and a few free bottles when we came back a bit later. The town of St. Emilion is absolutely beautiful. The left bank is fairly bland, completely flat, and although there are beautiful Chateaux everywhere, the land leaves a bit to be desired. On the other hand the right bank is beautiful, with rolling hills, stone houses, narrow streets, and lots of overpriced wineshops offering graciously free tastings. I wasn’t overly unimpressed by what I tasted, but as one shop owner told me, “90% of the people that walk through that door know nothing about wine so it’s pretty easy to sell anything with Bordeaux on the label”. We ate a quick lunch then drove wearily to the Cognac region where we were going to stay with a friend. At this point the word friend is used a bit loosely. We didn’t really know who we were going to stay with. One night while we were eating dinner in Vienna, a rather eccentric and giggly Frenchman began talking to us, and didn’t stop until we had finished eating, done the dishes and made our way out of the dining room. Sebastian is a bit loony, but very nice, and invited us to stay at his house in the middle of nowhere if we were in the area.

We made our way to his area, ignoring the fact that our GPS could not find his street, although it did direct us through the windy and narrow roads of the Cognac region towards his town. The area here is rolling his and farmland, but the only things farmed here are a bit of corn and lots of green grapes used in the local Cognac production. When we made it to his town, which was only a few square blocks, we drove up and down the streets, hoping to see his, but to no avail. Then we started asking the locals, no one had ever heard of his street or knew him. We went out of town a bit and asked a few more people and fortunately one man gave us very detailed directions on how to get to the street, but unfortunately since we don’t really understand French or specifically small town country French, we had no idea where he was telling us to go. Then back in town we found a very gracious couple who took us to their house so we could check on the computer, which also had never heard of his street, and then call him, although his phone number wasn’t working. We had now been searching for an hour, and we left the house and we tried to figure out what it was that the man had said for us to do, since he seemed like the only person who had ever heard of this street. I thought he said to drive out of town a bit, so we did, for about five minutes, and then we realized we’d gone too far. As we turned around to head back, we saw a small street sign that said his street’s name, Rue des Merovingiens! It wasn’t in the town he said but in a different one, with the glorious name of Herpes. Now that we had found ourselves in the middle of Herpes, we had a bigger problem, finding his house, since there were no house numbers. We began asking around but no one knew Sebastian, until finally the 10th person recognized his last name, since apparently he goes by a different first name in Herpes. So in the end we found the house of a person who provided us a street that wasn’t recognized in our GPS, in a different city than what he told us, who gave us the wrong phone number, who lived in a house without a number, and goes by a different name than what we knew him by, but we still found him! Now that’s crazy!

Our time with Sebastian was great though, he treated us very well. He lives in a 160 year old stone house, that he purchased a few years back in a state of rubble for 10000 Euros and has slowly rebuilt it, using many of the old stones and original wood. Due to the stone walls, the place is bitterly cold, but it has more character than just about any house I’d ever been in, it’s truly unlike anywhere else I’ve been, and sleeping in a 100 year old wooden bed that bowed like the inside of a canoe and was about 4 inches shorter than my body was certainly a different experience. He took us to his grandmother’s house on a Sunday afternoon for a nice home cooked meal, and we sat and talked with his sister and grandmother for a few hours about life, really seeing how things move in that part of the country. It’s very isolated and old out there and life moves at a crawl, although the nearby Cognac industry does provide a source of income for many of the residents. In the evening he and I painstakingly made it through tasting all of the Cognacs he had in his possession, a tough job, and I began to appreciate the complexity of this spirit that I’d only had a few times. Staying at Sebastian’s was another story that I think Flavia and I will appreciate more and more once we get home, as this wasn’t Paris or some famous town, instead it was the opposite, it was real life, in a small town that no one will ever go to and no one will ever know, but for me, this was the opportunity to really get to know France in its shadows, away from what’s under the spotlight.

Posted by JonathanU 09:01 Archived in France Comments (0)

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