Toledo: Mr Miser – An extended review

Image

In Toledo we stayed in a hostel immediately worrying to us as it appeared to be part of Hostelling International association, who I am convinced are breeding members of a cult and are strictly crapheads toward anyone who’s not a member. We quickly named the owner of the hostel Mr Miser. Why? Here are five reasons.

  1. Breakfast was included. What’s measly about that, you say? “Breakfast” was three, tiny, pre-packaged muffins – the kind most hostels would have in a bowl for snacks throughout the day. That was it and that was a bad start.

  2. There were advertised self catering facilities – very important to the budget traveller to save on having to buy all dinners out. These facilities consisted of two microwaves. There was what looked to be a more proper kitchen in a room labelled “staff room,” in which there was at the very least a kettle. However, the electric element to the kettle was kept locked in a draw…

  3. The place was really cold – it was winter after all. Guests were not given the controls to the split systems in the room – it took a great deal of time shivering in Mr Miser’s face to have him hand over the precious remote, and not for lack of asking either!

  4. Light was necessary as far as Mr Miser was concerned. The living room had several ceiling lights, but Mr Miser would quickly swoop to turn off any light beyond the first. (He was very sneaky.) He actually told people they had to sit right next to one another if they wanted any light. Mr Miser himself actually sat in the dark when working (I think he was working), only making himself known as you walked past and he reminded you what you weren’t allowed to do in your room…

  5. All taxes are to be stated and/or included in the advertised price in Spain. Not for Mr Miser, who simply decides upon guests’ checkout, somewhat ironically, to add an eight per cent service fee. For what service exactly, I’m yet to figure out. I did say he was sneaky.

This all sounds pretty petty, I know. But really, we were more amused by it all than anything else. A man who sits in the dark and jumps out at you to nitpick whatever it is you might be doing – sneaky weirdo, indeed.

Toledo, on the other hand, is AMAZING! GO GO GO GO GO GO GO GO!!!!

Advertisements

Madrid to Granada: Calamari dreamin’

Image

In May 2011, without trying to find, or having read a recommendation, I happened upon what I remember to be the best calamari I’ve had. It was in a small bar by the Cathedral in Granada; I remember sitting at a typically high, circular, wooden table – of which there were half a dozen – and sharing the space with both tourists and locals alike. Unlike many locations around, there was no difference between tapas and racions. Meals were priced individually, cheaply and came the size of what you would probably consider an over-generous tapa. There was nothing especially fancy about the calamari; it was simply one of those experiences, where everything is done so right, that you decide to add it to your list of absolute favourites. It became a staple that I would return to again and again, trying to find as many places that would serve it to me just the way I remembered it when it was perfect.

November 2013 and I was back in Spain. It seemed only appropriate, then, that I find my dreamed calamari and see how Spain – the country in which I added the simple seafood to my culinary priorities – delivered up the white rings elsewhere. Landing in Madrid with only one night to explore, I figured it appropriate to Google the best options. Now, searching for “Madrid + Calamari” is certainly opening a can of worms. I had spent several days in Madrid last time around and, to my complete bamboozlement, was unaware of the city’s fascination with calamari sandwiches. Madrid’s calamari consumption is out of control! Plaza Mayor, to be most accurate, was the place to hook yourself up; or rather, the place that contained the seemingly never ending number of bars, cafes, restaurants, and well, calamari shops to feast your fishy eyes on.

I put this prior oversight of the sandwiches down to the fact that that my initial visit to Madrid was my first experience of Spain, and having never visited the country before it can be quite overwhelming to get your head around. Firstly, for someone who has generally had dinner in the vicinity of 6.30 – 7 pm for his entire life, the premise of eating at 10 pm is simply ludicrous. How can my tummy hold on that long!? Secondly, there are way too many ways to eat; eat free tapas with a drink; pay for tapas with a drink; just get tapas (say 3 or 4 for tea with a drink), have a racion (a plate), eat and pay at the counter, expect table service, take pieces by the toothpick… And then there’s the question of quantity. Is it wrong for me to sit in one bar for several hours and just keep ordering 1 euro beers to get the freebie snack, accumulating these tasty morsels until I’m well enough fed?

Image

As far as free tapas are concerned, the whole experience is like a game in which you progress from level to level with each drink. The more drinks you can handle, the more worthy you become in the eye of the barman for a greater culinary present. Consider toast with a tuna/tomato spread with the first cana (beer), followed by a mini bagel with soft cheese as the next, before they start firing up the grill and dishing up shish-kebabs, mini steaks or, if you’re so lucky, calamari! It becomes a challenge to see what level you can reach without (a) coming across as a freeloader and (b) falling off your chair.

So essentially, having no real prior experience with the Spanish way somehow caused me to miss a Madrid specialty. Poor excuse, I know, but the point is Google returned an onslaught of “BEST CALAMARI SANDWICH” results and I quickly decided it better to just find one myself before being consumed by recommendations. The premise of the food itself is simple – put the squid in a roll. The experience is the fun bit. It seemed that lunchtime on the weekend was as popular time as any to find a packed location. You squeeze your way to the bar and wave frantically until you have a sandwich in your hand and less shrapnel in your pocket (I paid 3 euro on average). Whoever serves you will be too busy for pleasantries, but that only served as proof that you need no real further convincing toward what you’ll order. You look at it briefly, then hoe down, enjoying it right where you are, soaking in the sound of a hundred conversations you won’t understand (unless you’re better prepared than me and, you know, learn the language).

The confusing part of all that Madird business is that Madrid is in the middle of the country, which is effectively in the middle of the desert. Are these some kind of super land squid I have yet to encounter? It’s a mystery to me, because the sheer quantities of the stuff used daily is tremendous!

Leaving Madrid, I had four stops to make on this particular Spanish excursion: Toledo for a few days, then Cordoba, Seville and Granada in Andalucia. A specialty of Madrid, the calamari sandwiches weren’t seen again, as such; although a great number of tapas were ordered, including the very Calamares de Andaluc I’d had in Granada three years back. The best of these was had in Toledo – served in a cone with token veggies, but cooked somewhat tempura style and served with mint aioli. This calamari was the boss squid, and blew Madrid out of the water, so to speak, as well as setting a bar – apparently too high – for the calamares tapas that followed. The others were straightforward, generally deep fried and served with a “salad” garnish. This is what I expected as this is what I fell in love with in the first place. Most were fantastic, but the odd one was slightly over or under done. Overall though, the Spanish seriously know their stuff!

The calamari in Granada, then? The one that had me bugging Tess at every bar to let me eat more squid (and more, more, more). The setting was spot on – the place was packed and the vino flowing. But sadly, that one turned out to be possibly the most disappointing of this trip. What I had previously regarded as the lord of the rings was a letdown, only slightly overcooked but too tough to compete against Toledo or others in Madrid, Cordoba and Seville. But it didn’t matter. The place had already fulfilled its purpose as far as I was concerned. It got me hooked, just like all those squids will continue to be literally hooked for my eating pleasure in the future.

Porto: My “little” Francesinha

020 Porto

This is one sandwich you would not soon forget. Hailing from the northern Portuguese city of Porto, the Francesinha (Frenchie in Portuguese) is made with bread, ham, sausage, steak, loads of cheese and served topped with a hot tomato soupy sauce in a bowl. AND THERE’S AN EGG ON TOP. Oh, and it’s served surrounded by drowning chips as well. It’s a city treasure, that’s washed down with a draught beer and bound to clog a few arteries. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s delicious.

Supposedly invented by Daniel da Silva in 1960 as a Portuguese take on the croque-monsieur, this is hardly at all similar to its French, glorified toastie, cousin. Its meats are thick, its cheese is stretchy and its bread is soggy. I encountered a fair amount of debate regarding this sandwich from people I knew who’d given it a gamble. Both sides of the fence were accounted for, so naturally I had to try one myself. Getting a tip was a good idea, even if getting a table was tricky. Surrounded by locals and tourists alike, I had never encountered a cafe that was genuinely full of people all eating the same sandwich!

Tess had hers sans chippies, but I wanted the whole shebang and was glad I got it – I didn’t need to eat again for quite some time. The main reason my Francesinha got a thumbs up from me was the meat. Apparently, when locals argue about the sandwich it comes down to the sauce or the meat. For me, I had expected and wanted the sauce to be spicier than it was. So, while the sauce was tasty, it wasn’t the winning ingredient. The meat won me over; predominantly due to the fact it surprised me. Paying a little extra meant better quality meat, and while it’s difficult to stuff up ham or sausage, the steak was actually a pretty stellar medium rare. The cheese was certainly a stretchy textural thing rather than a flavour, but when everything came together (including the tomato drenched fries) it made for a bizarre, filling, yummy and unforgettable culinary experience.

If you end up in Porto you should try this sandwich for yourself. Find somewhere that’s busy and wait if you have to; don’t buy one based on it being the cheapest you see, and don’t expect to want to eat dinner. Do, however, consider following your Francesinha up with some Port tasting across the river.

021 Frances 022 Frances

Coimbra: Are there seriously bats in here?

The Biblioteca Joanine in the University of Coimbra, like much of the Uni, is an impressive piece of work and probably responsible for some part of a room in one of the Harry Potter books. Like the Long Room in Dublin’s Trinity College, the room is fairly precious to its hosts, closed off from the outside elements (mostly the sun) and generally overpriced for a squiz. And you’re not allowed to take photos either, which makes a sneaky one all the more desirable, even if Google Image has a wealth of HD examples (who doesn’t like a rebellious challenge?)

019 Coimbra library

What I found most intriguing about the beautiful room has nothing to do with its lengthy history, nor the volumes of literature and science in all the pages of all the books. Rather, it was the fact (stated ever so nonchalantly in the library’s fact sheet) that a colony of bats reside in the room and come out at night to eat any insects that would damage the books/artefacts within the walls. I doubt the ugly little guys would be welcome in too many 18th century royal buildings, but here there appears to be a pretty sweet exception for them and the relationship has been going on some time. You eat my bugs and we leave you alone – if you’re evil enough to poop on any of our antique tables, we’ll call Batman to come and bash you all (he did go into pest control after faking his death in the last film, right?)

Faro: Sunset and stalks

When you’re only having a quick stop and it’s on a very quiet Sunday, there’s not a great deal to be said for Faro, Portugal. Apart from the sharing the obvious benefits of Lagos to the west – that is, tarts and coffee – Faro was sleepy, quick to explore town-wise, and without the views or allure of the beach. Instead, a thick, brown and murky marsh of a landscape was on the outer perimeters of town – not exactly an attractive view.

The sunset was pretty special, though. Helped by the brown landscape and stretching clouds of the evening we were there, the sky turned a great, bloody red as the day turned to night; as rich a colour and contrast to the day it was seeing out as possible. I wouldn’t say visit Faro for the sunset, but it sure made our stay more memorable.

Image

We did discover two new Portuguese gems while we were in Faro. The first was the nesting nature of the stalk. Having not been privy to how stalks nest before visiting Portugal, we found it both impressive and hilarious to see a giant nest (forget what you think you know about bird nests) atop a very tall, lone street light in the middle of a roundabout.

This seemed absolutely brilliant to us, even after we found out that the nesting atop high beams, rather exposed, was just how the stalks rolled; entirely common in this part of the world. On the way out of Faro on the bus, there were plenty more ridiculous bests to be spotted, most plopped right on top of power poles.

Image

Our other discovery was culinary. Following the tip from out Guest House on where to eat, we happened upon Cataplana, a Portuguese seafood dish that was not something we’d usually fork out for. Two semi-spheres (like bowls) are clamped together, trapping inside a variety of seafood, onions, peppers and stock. The result was a fresh, delicate and varied serving for two and despite containing five kinds of seafood it wasn’t at all too fishy. It all went down very well with some local wine, although I don’t know how Tess would have coped had she known what a Monkfish looked like prior to sitting down to a meal of it.

ImageThat’s a monkfish… Looks like something out of Star Wars

Finally, every time I recall Faro I get this song in my head…

 

 

Lagos: Clifftop ramblin’

010 Lagos cliff

If you’re heading down south in Portugal, Lagos is a pretty decent choice to set up camp – it certainly wins against its bigger neighbouring destinations; Sagres (on the south west tip of the country and so sleepy it might just nap off the edge of Europe) and Faro (to the east, relatively pleasant but surrounded by murkiness).

The old town of Lagos is nice, but the real charm here is the coast, which includes an extensive cliff top trail that can caster for brief strolls, afternoon outings or full day hikes, depending on how far you want to go and, in several sections, whether you take the paved road, or choose to clamber and climb over some questionable path connections.

There are points along the trail at which you can make you way down to find some pretty cool caves, which are accessible for exploration at low tide. But while heading down is fun (who knows what you’ll find), the beauty of the trail is in the spectacular views along the way – both along the cliffs ahead and simply out to sea. If you plan to take the road back to town instead of backtracking, take many opportunities to look back in the first place, as the trail winds so you might miss a particularly nice view.

The best part of the Lagos cliff top trail is that anyone can hike, and you’ll see all ages along the way. Make sure to take plenty of water (it gets hot!), remember to look behind you (but not for too long, you don’t wanna fly) and enjoy!

012 Lagos cliff Liam 009 Off the face of the earth 008 Lagos cliff 011 Lagos cliff

Lisbon: “Have you tried one of those custard tarts?”

004 Lisbon Colin

“Have you tried one of those custard tarts?”

Someone asked us this question at a hostel in Porto and we just laughed simultaneously, accidently implying we were laughing at the questioner when in fact we were laughing at ourselves and what little piggies we knew we were. Simultaneously, we realised that we had probably eaten our weight in pateis de nata since landing in Lisbon several weeks earlier.

Our first morning in Lisbon was out first proper opportunity to seek out said tart. Without a word of Portuguese or any clue as to an expected price, we bought a pair of espressos and a little yellow treaty from a rather amused old lady. We expected it to be delicious and it was. The coffee looked good, too. And it was. Then we paid, and that was the coolest part of all – 3.20 euros for two coffees and two pastries! Pretty insane, especially considering a Portuguese tart from the Royal Arcade in M-Town will set you back $4.50. And of course there is then the price of a coffee at home…

Turned out the average cost of an espresso across Portugal was 0.60 – 0.70 euro cents; cheaper than Italy and, for the most part, just as good. Our real vice, however, was the humble tart, which consistently proved to be one of the simplest, tastiest and cheapest snacks around. The custard was almost always perfect (the only exception being one that was served but not set), but the true telling of a perfect tart was the pastry, which at its best consisted of several layers that flaked and snapped in your mouth, combining scrumptiously with its yellow neighbour, or pulling away to attend the Diving School of Coffee Accompaniments.

The absolutely best pateis de nata came from Belem, a short bus trip from the city centre. The line out the door of Pateis de Belem was telling enough and the pastries made the fight to the counter more than worthwhile. So much so we had to come back for three more that afternoon.

From Lisbon, we visited a half dozen other locations in Portugal and the pateis de nata didn’t let us down. We wore our new tart bellies with, um, pride. Yeah, pride…004.2 Belem

004.1 Lisbon