DAY 6 : River Cruising with Uniworld – BORDEAUX VINEYARDS & CHATEAUX …

After yet another lovely evening with great food, wine and great entertainment on board the River Royale, we woke to some better Bordeaux weather and the chance of spending a full day in this beautiful, versatile city. Uniworld offered us a number of options for the day – bicycling tours with a local cycling company or a walking, tram and food tour with an expert guide and with complimentary tickets to La Cité du Vin and for the tram.

img_0696.jpgAlso on offer in the afternoon was a 2-hour specialist onboard wine tasting experience with the in-house Sommelier, Nico which included a full tutorial on wine appreciation and a blind tasting session to see how well you had been listening. While exceptionally popular with other guests who firmly recommended it, we decided to get some exercise for the day.IMG_0988 2Bordeaux is a fascinating port city on the Garonne River and now one of my most favourite of all European cities. The architecture is comparable to the grandeur of Paris (without the crowds), it is flat and easy to get around, has brilliant city transport, great restaurants and fantastic shopping down the 1.2km Rue St Catherine.  Add to that the sublime and extensive surrounding wine region, the beautiful beaches and coastline and the proximity to Paris, this has to be one of the best regions and cities to live in.img_0681.jpgIt’s known for its Gothic Cathédrale Saint-André, the 18-19th-century mansions which all sprang up as a result of the flourishing wine trade and notable museums such as the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux and the Musée d’Aquitaine which we visited. Public gardens line the curving river quays which become a hub of activity and family gatherings on the weekends. The grand Place de la Bourse, centered on the Three Graces fountain, overlooks the Miroir d’Eau reflecting pool and there are some pretty spectacular town gates as well, the Porte de la Grosse Cloche and Porte-Cailhau. The city has embraced modern architecture and sculpture and it seems to sit quite comfortably alongside its historical counterparts. Particularly popular are the Halles of Baclan, an open plan foodmarket and cluster of restaurants, right next to La Cité du Vin.

The old…..

and the modern….

Our tour began in the old city – with the promise of chocolates, creme puffs and other treats that this city is well-known for. Sarah explained how just a few short years ago, Bordeaux was a bit grubby and rough around the edges and the buildings had mainly become blackened by soot and car pollution, giving the inner city a slightly oppressive feel. A forward-thinking mayor who incentivised the Bordelais to clean their buildings and embark on a city restoration programme has turned all of that around and the city now has quite a warm glow to its limestone buildings.

IMG_0686First stop is the Canelés Baillardran – Dijeaux Café where the famous Bordelaise Canele is made. This little delicacy is a small pastry, flavoured with rum and vanilla has a custard centre and a dark, thick caramelized crust. It takes the shape of small, striated cylinder up to five centimetres in height with a depression at the top and we were told, developed directly as a result of the wine trade – but not from the grapes. During winemaking, egg-whites are used to “fine” the wine as impurities and sediment will ‘stick’ to it. The result was a massive surplus of egg yolks and it is told that the nuns of the Couvent des Annonciades developed a secret recipe in the shape of church pillars to commercialise this surplus!. Clever gals!canelsNext the very popular Dunes Blanches chez Pascal Bordeaux where we are treated to a genuine choux pastry creme puff, filled with vanilla creme and topped with icing sugar. Originally developed near the Cap Ferrat area, these delicious little puffs are supposed to mimic the white sand dunes of nearby Dune du Pilat on the Bordeaux coast. We watched as people filed into the shop to purchase little boxes of these treats which can apparently make you a lot of friends if you are new to the city and invited for morning tea.dunes-pic.jpgLastly and before heading back to the River Royale for lunch, is the new but popular artisan chocolate shop Hasnaâ Grand Cru on the Rue de la Vieille Tour. Nothing to do with wine, but the beans are apparently selected from the first growth on plantations around the world and cover countries such as Madagascar, Indonesia, Cuba, Cosa Rica and Bolivia. We sampled some plain dark, some ganache and some praline – all of which were delicious and there was no shortage of customers, despite being a pricey little chocolatier!img_7820.jpgA short stroll down Quai to the evocative and stunning building that is La Cité du Vin and we are lucky to get there at 1.30pm and just before the Saturday apres-lunch crowd arrives. Our tickets allow us immediate entry, audio tour and a complimentary glass of wine on the top floor but first, we head up to the array of interactive, sensorial displays for which this museum is now famous.img_0645.jpgThere is no doubt that this is the way young people prefer to learn, but me – I’m still a bit old-fashioned and found the jostling, slightly inconsiderate crowd who linger and hog some of the displays a bit annoying.IMG_7830As this is the last night of our river cruise itinerary, the Captain and crew have a treat in store with farewell cocktails and a special gala dinner, so we don our glad rags and head on up to the lounge.img_7841.jpg

 

We’ve made some lovely friends from the UK, Australia and all over the United States, and have nothing but praise for the wonderful staff of Uniworld and the service we have been given. Nothing was a problem, everything little detail is covered and the entire itinerary is well thought out with all sorts of interests, fitness levels, ages and activities considered. Even the weather could not stop proceedings as there always seemed to be a Plan B if the weather hampered Plan A.

I wanted to know more about wine, about Bordeaux and about the rivers and environs of the Gironde and I came away feeling the richer on all of those subjects.

Thanks Uniworld Boutique River Cruising! Hope to cruise with you again!

 

 

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DAY 5 : River Cruising with Uniworld – BORDEAUX VINEYARDS & CHATEAUX …

The River Royale docked overnight in Libourne so that we could enjoy the weekly Libourne market and also experience another wine tasting experience. Our local expert guide Sarah collected us at 9am and we walked over the bridge to the market, held in the Bastide town square. Sarah explained that the had been given a small budget by the Cruise Manager so that we could purchase some of the local treats to try at the market but also take to our wine tasting. It’s another grey day, but the colour and bustle of the market continues on regardless.

img_7789-e1523194397722.jpgSarah skillfully negotiated for bread, cheese, strawberries and chocolate with the local stallholders and the cheese man nearly got the better of her!

Being Easter, the surrounding shops are full of Easter themed windows and the French really take Easter and chocolate very seriously. The fish-shaped chocolate being sold is called “Fritures de Pâques” is the symbol of Christianity and comes dark, milk and white chocolate options – all delicious.

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Back on the bus and we are really looking forward to meeting an ex-Parisian couple, Nathalie and Jerome who purchased the ruined Chateau Boutinet and 23 hectares of woodland and vineyard in 2011. Just outside the village of Villegouge, the land is south facing on a clay-limestone hillside, and the thing that you notice first from the driveway, is the large white Yurt that doubles as a function building and tasting room.

img_0983.jpgThey began their conversion to organic in 2017 but because of constraints put on them by the bank, have had to put the Chateau restoration on hold for a time. The forest that was growing in and around the main buildings have been cleared and they are only inhabiting the old ex-implement wing to the left at present in the hope to one day return the Chateau to its former glory and according to the early century photographs they have.img_0980.jpgCurrently selling 2/3 of their Merlot crop to the local co-operative for cash-flow, from the remaining 1/3, they produce their current 3 Boutinet wines – the one we will be trying today is the Clairet de Boutinet. Nathalie had to twist Jerome’s arm to get him to agree to the modern and stylish label she helped design on the Clairet bottle, especially as labelling of Bordeaux wines seems to follow a more traditional path.

Nathalie explained that most people have a misconception when it comes to what is known in English as Claret and that the French term is actually Clairet. Clairet today is similar to the light wine of the middle ages that was exported to England and also called “vinum clarum” and “vin clar” and where the English name Claret actually comes from. The problem is that us English tend to think of Claret as a heavy red wine, which is actually not Claret at all! Nathalie explains that Clairet (similar to a rosé perhaps?) should be a perfect companion to enjoy with a barbecue salad, cold cuts and tapas!  It is considered a speciality of the Bordeaux region but Nathalie was still quick to point out that it is not a rosé.

Their other two vintages, the Château Boutinet and Thalie de Boutinet are described as fuller, rounder and more elegant wines, but right now I’m sticking with the Clairet which were enjoyed with the bread, cheese and strawberries bought from the market, while the rain came down outside of our French Yurt!

This hard-working couple deserve to do well and offer a range of add-on aspects to their business such as hiking through the vineyards, followed by homemade tapas accompanied by their own wines – in the sun or if raining – in the Yurt!

Back on the River Royale in the afternoon, we set sail back to Bordeaux and our docking place outside of the spectacular Cite du Vin. Unfortunately when we arrive there, two French Navy destroyers have “taken our dock” but in the spirit of reconciliation, the Captain decided not to argue with them and proceeds a few minutes back down to the Quai des Chartrons for the night.

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DAY 4 : River Cruising with Uniworld – BORDEAUX VINEYARDS & CHATEAUX …

A peaceful night’s sleep was had after the River Royale docked last night on the Avenue du General de Gaulle in Libourne, the Bastide town founded by the English Lord Roger de Leybourne of Kent and built to protect the citizens of the town during the “100 Years” wars. Libourne hosts one of the largest weekly food markets in the region and is the wine-making capital of the Northern Gironde.IMG_0972After another foray into the extensive selection of breakfast goodies, we are visiting one of the “holy grail” wine areas of  Bordeaux, where serious wine lovers, snobs, aficionados and just plain guzzlers like us all want to have visited – yes it’s the appellation and town of St Emilion, a commune in the South West Gironde and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Full of steep, narrow cobbled streets, Romanesque churches and ruins from various periods in history, it has more wine shops that you could shake a stick at. Growing some of the finest Bordeaux red wines, the main grape varieties grown are Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon from which most St Emilion wines are typically blended.img_0578.jpgThis area was the site of the first vines introduced to France by the Romans as early as the 2nd century and the limestone slopes surrounding the village and making up the St Emilion appellation, sit on the slopes of the Dordogne river and cover an approximate area of 5,400 hectares. Amazingly, St Emilion appellation only represents around 6% of the total Bordeaux wine production.img_0581.jpgLand prices in the St Emilion region of France appear to be some of the most valuable vineyard lands per hectare and most of it is tightly held in large Chateaux or estates so rarely changes hands. Saint Émilion wines were not included in the 1855 Bordeaux classification but rather have their own formal classification system which was begun in 1955 and is regularly reviewed for quality, unlike the 1855 classification. Because of this prestige, the land and Chateaux are grand and most often pristine. img_0752.jpgThe village itself is definitely worth visiting but I warn you – it’s very popular with the tour buses and so you need to get there early or be on an escorted tour because you won’t have a show of seeing anything worthwhile without a guide – except of course the sweeping views across hectares of vineyards. The village is largely uninhabited now that it has become such a tourist mecca. Some of the cobbles in the streets are round and quite hard to walk on but the French describe this process as “walking on the heads of the English”. Nothing sinister, but apparently when the old wine ships came back empty from an English trade run, they had to fill their holds with ballast. That ballast was often stone from the English coast, so it was an enterprising and sensible use of unwanted stone.

One of those very special things you can only enjoy with a formal guide (and with Uniworld it is one of the many all-inclusive excursions on your cruise) is a visit to the catacombs and original hermitage of Emilion, the 8th-century monk who dedicated himself to a life of poverty and whose first church was carved from the rock. The guide needs a special key from the Tourism office and entry is strictly controlled.

The first stop on the tour is the only part that is above ground – the Holy Trinity Chapel. Built by Benedictine monks on top of the hermitage to protect it, the wall and ceiling frescoes in here date from the 13th century and are only relatively vivid because the building was used for a number of years post Revolution, by a cooper. The soot from the fires used in the making of barrels formed a protective layer and preserved the paintings so that when they were cleaned a little over a decade ago,  conservators were able to reveal something of their original splendour. Unfortunately, no photos allowed.

Directly below the chapel is the hermitage, the original cave where the young Emilion, made his home after fleeing the notoriety that accompanied miracles he had performed in Brittany, lived twelve hundred years ago. The cave is small, but a crude bed and chair were carved into the wall and a small spring that flows through the cave and is said to hold magical powers.

Across from the hermitage is the entrance to the catacombs and the monolithic church, which was apparently built because the hermitage had become a major pilgrimage site on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela Pilgrims walk. According to folklore, Emilion’s body was laid there, underneath a dome that was carved to replicate the dome above Jesus tomb and once open to the sky for Pilgrims to peer down into, but now sealed. We made our way in the semi-darkness along passages lined with openings where bodies were once laid and then into the massive church space – entirely carved from limestone and the largest of its kind in Europe. Two enormous original rows of columns support the ceiling; are now surrounded by metal bars, put in place to support the compromised limestone and the weight of the bell tower above. Originally, the walls would have been decorated with colourful frescoes, but since the church was used as a saltpetre factory during the French Revolution (saltpetre occurs naturally on damp dark walls and is harvested literally by scraping it off), only faint traces of painting and carved decoration remain. Interestingly, many of the carvings were quite pagan, including signs of the zodiac which are rarely found in churches.

Our tour guide informed us that some believe the “Holy Grail” may, in fact, be hidden somewhere in St Emilion – but we didn’t find it on this visit!

Our tasting programme began with a visit to Chateau Fonroque, a Grand Cru Classé estate now operated under strictly organic and biodynamic principles – and the first Grand Cru Classé vineyard to gain certified biodynamic status. Our very interesting guide was Caroline and she showed us first the vines and then some of the equipment used in brewing the many natural insect and disease control methods that they are trialling, including infusions of herbs such as mint and chamomile.

After a brief tour of the working winery, it was off to the tasting room to sample their 2011 vintage which was very good and a nice end to the day’s touring.

 

All on the tour agreed that the St Emilion visit was a not to be missed experience and that a visit to Bordeaux would not be complete without it.

IMG_0967Back to the River Royale for another tough cocktail hour followed by another delicious 4-course dinner!

 

 

 

 

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24 Hours in Portland, Maine

I’m sure that most travellers will agree that after the bright lights of New York City and the old-world English charm of Boston, most US cities have a very hard act to follow and my hopes were virtually nonexistent when it came to the state capital of Maine. But as if to prove me oh so wrong, Portland turned out to be my favourite stop on our NYC to Montreal road trip – it’s quiet, unassuming vibe was a welcome relief after the bustle of Boston and the fresh sea-salted air reminded me of being back home in Wellington. For anyone wanting a foodie stop on their East Coast road trip, this is the place and there are a raft of newly-renovated apartments and lofts to rent on Airbnb – we stayed here and promptly decided the deco and couch were nice enough to spend the evening in with a bottle of wine and random episodes of Gilmore Girls.

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The next day, we started our morning with a cold brew and some morning bread on the sun-drenched terrace (an ultra-thick slab of cinnamon-spiced brioche) at The Standard Baking Co., located in the Old Port directly across from the Casco Bay Ferry Terminal. It’s a family-owned bakery making artisanal breads and pastries and heavily influenced by Maine’s pan-European past. There’s German Vollkornbrot, French brioche and cinnamon scrolls to rival the kanalbullar I tasted in Stockholm. Definitely a place for any bread geeks out there!

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With the last brioche crumbs gone, we headed off to wander around the Old Port. Until very recently, downtown Portland had suffered in the name of capitalist progress. The opening of a huge mall in southern Portland (the largest in the state of Maine) put many department stores and smaller retailers in the port area out of business and stores sat empty for several years. However, recently the council has committed to rejuvenating the area, with ongoing projects to protect the city’s elaborate Victorian architecture, and the Old Port is now a mecca for independents and quirky eateries.

We spent the morning wandering past local coffee roasters, organic food stores, homeware shops and market stalls selling jewellery and art. It’s nice to escape the cruise ship crowd and explore the smaller streets that branch off from Commercial Street. The best place to get a photo is either down on the pier by the Information Centre (14 Ocean Gateway Pier – worth visiting for the toilets and friendly advice on the city and surrounds) or next to the Casco Bay Ferry Terminal, where restaurants and bars stretch out onto the piers.

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One thing this city has in common with its West Coast namesake is a small but buzzing independent coffee scene, which is surely the lifeblood of the city’s “hipster” revival. We stopped at Coffee by Design, a café with a cosy, community feel to it and just a stone’s throw away from the information centre. Other local recommendations included Tandem Coffee Roasters, which is just a bit further up the street on Anderson Street, and Crema Coffee Company on Commercial Street, which we popped into to take a look at – a huge space, great for working and with a fireplace for those cold wintery Maine days. For any keen coffee beans, there’s a great guide to Maine’s coffee culture both in and around the city here.

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After the coffee break and before heading out to Cape Elizabeth to do some seagull spotting, we decided to make one last stop at Duckfat in Middle Street, just off the Old Port area. People from around the country flock to this tiny eatery to try the Belgian-style chips that are fried in (you guessed it) duck fat and served in a cone along with one of eight homemade dipping sauces – we can highly recommend the horseradish mayo! If we’d had more time, we definitely would have stayed in to eat – they also do sandwiches, salads, charcuterie, milkshakes and soups, and if everything is as good as those fries were, then it is definitely a lunch-worthy stop.

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Finally, before you leave the Portland area, make a stop at Cape Elizabeth for superb views of the rugged Maine coastline. The town was originally settled as one of the English trading posts in the early 17th century, with the first being on Richmond Island where beaver skins and rum was traded with the Native Indians. It went from strength to strength as a trading outpost until it became Maine’s twenty-third town during the American War of Independence. Along with the Portland Head Light (which was built at the order of George Washington), visitors can also see the remains of a large artillery fort (hence the name Fort Williams Park) that was built at the end of the 19th century and remained active until 1962. The park is a twenty-minute drive from Portland and there is lots of free parking on site.

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Happy travels folks, Mo

Food History USA/Canada

The Beauty of Barga and the Garfagnana

If you’re looking for somewhere to get away from it all, the medieval town of Barga in the Garfagnana is a lovely location. While there are several historic sites, churches and monuments, none are as compelling as the vistas of the countryside and mountains, so it is the perfect place to take a break from sightseeing and spend a restorative day or two ‘smelling the roses’. If you’re after a little more action, Barga is also a great base for some serious mountain biking and hiking.

The Garfagnana is the area that encompasses the valley and hills trailing the Serchio River between the Apuan Alps and the Apennines towards Lucca. It is probably the most undiscovered part of Tuscany and is prized for its wide skies and mountain vistas. Mostly consisting of small, hillside hamlets scattered among oak and chestnut forests, Barga is one of the larger settlements in the Garfagnana and is billed as the most Scottish town in Italy (a nod to the Scottish Highlands).

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Getting there

Barga is approximately 35km from Lucca and is an easy, 45-minute drive. From Pisa, it’s about an hour. There are regular trains from Lucca to Barga-Gallicano station on the Lucca – Aulla line (€9.00 return trip). From Barga-Gallicano station, Barga is about 4km uphill. If you’re fit, take a bike with you (additional €3.00 return trip on the train), but the climb from the station is quite steep and would challenge a novice rider. Buses run from across the road from the station, but may not connect with all trains, so it is best to check at the time of booking. It is also possible to travel direct from Lucca by bus.

Staying there

If you don’t have a car, you will almost definitely want to arrange accommodation in Barga. For those with a car, the range of accommodation extends to luxury spa hotels and agriturismos in the surrounding hamlets.

We travelled by train (with bikes) and stayed in Barga at 3-star Villa Moorings Hotel, which was a 5-minute walk to the old city and to a range of restaurants and osterie. Villa Moorings Hotel is a Liberty style villa-turned-hotel and is packed to the gunnels with history and charm. Our room and bathroom were vast and full of period furniture and fittings. Beatrice, the owner/manager, was as charming as her hotel. She has done a wonderful job of repurposing the villa, once owned by her grandparents – think frescoed ceilings, grand staircases and ornately tiled floors. The effect of stately charm extends to the outdoors where there is a large pool alongside a grassed lawn and orchard. We travelled to Barga in June and booked through a booking website, however you can contact Beatrice direct on +39 583-710915 or +39 583-711538. We paid €101 for the night plus €10pp for a breakfast that was delicious and way more substantial than we needed.

Eating out

There is a range of trattorie and osterie in the old city and several options outside the old city walls, including bars and pizzarie. Like other Tuscan cuisine, the Garfagnese take pride in preparing traditionally simple food, using local, seasonal produce. We had dinner in the old city at L’Osteria, which included an antipasto of cheese, nuts and honey, followed by macaroni (no resemblance to what we are used to in NZ) with truffle, then by lamb and potatoes – all delicious and relatively inexpensive at €39 plus drinks. We skipped dessert and were treated to a glass of local limoncello ‘on the house’ before we left.

What to do

Duomo di Barga
A walk up to Barga’s Duomo (Church of San Cristoforo) through the old town is a must. Walking through the town, you can be forgiven for feeling somewhat of an intruder – the cobbled lanes and stepped passages are very narrow and steep; even the piazze are tiny. Follow your nose uphill and you will eventually arrive at the terrace of the Duomo where you can take in the majesty of the views of the Serchio river valley, the Appenines and the Apuan Alps. From behind the Duomo, looking down towards the valley floor, you can see steeply terraced plantings of grapevines, olive trees, citrus and vegetables that are typical of the area. The Duomo itself is well worth a look and will provide welcome relief from the heat if you are there in the summer.

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Sommocolonia…
Looking out of our hotel window, I was intrigued by the tiny village sitting atop a not too distant hill to the north of Barga. Beatrice was quick to provide us with directions that included a hike up to Sommocolonia by way of an ancient mule track (mulatiettiera). The mule track can be joined about 2km from Barga at Catagnana; keep an eye out for the red and white ‘signs’ (which may just be paint marks on the road, and may almost be worn away). We lost our way a couple of times and needed guidance from a helpful local, the owner of two mules which we had the pleasure of encountering along the way. The climb up to Sommocolonia is not difficult, but it is a steep walk and requires a reasonable level of fitness (approx. 1.5 hours). At the top, from the tiny village (population about 35), the views are sublime. Originally an important fortified Roman outpost, Sommocolonia was partially destroyed by bombing in 1944 during the Second World War. At the village’s highest point, a monument to the partisans who died fighting alongside US forces seems incongruous with what now appears to be a peaceful and sleepy village. It’s a good idea to take plenty of water and a snack with you. When we visited, the only people we encountered were also hikers and although it was very hot and made sense for locals to be indoors, the chance of happening upon a bar or any other eatery seemed very remote.

Another big thanks to guest blogger Niki McNeilage of Wellington who is currently spending a few months living and touring in Italy, France and Spain.

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Heidelberg Cool

I don’t know what I was more excited about – seeing daughter Mo who had been studying at Heidelberg University for the year, or staying in this charming town – the first stop on our much anticipated Christmas Market tour of Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic! Of course it was seeing Mo – but timing our trip to commence late November meant that we could have our cake and eat it too.  Yes, it’s Winter in Europe at that time of year but if you want to experience the charm and beauty of a traditional Christmas with all the bells and whistles (and sometimes snow), then put on your hat, coat and gloves and start your Yuletide adventure (our Czech Christmas Market blog to follow).

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The historic town of Heidelberg is located in southwestern Germany and sits on the banks of the Neckar River. Home to one of Germany’s oldest and most reputable universities founded in 1386, it is not only a quintessentially vibrant University town but a popular tourist destination.  The romantic and historic cityscape, baroque Old Town, Heidelberg Castle and the well-known Philosopher’s Walk are among just some of the many attractions in this town full of Gothic and Renaissance architecture.

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Driving from Frankfurt Airport to Heidelberg took around 1 hour and with a satnav that we couldn’t re-programme into English, we quickly became proficient at German driving instructions!  We always prefer to stay in the historic centres of European capitals for the atmosphere but this is not always the easiest for car parking, so you have to do a lot of research in advance if travelling by car.  There are many excellent tour operators who have itineraries that cover the best of the Christmas Markets by either coach or river-cruising, so if driving is not your bag maybe consider one of these as an option.

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We booked into The Hotel Goldener Falke, right on the historic Altstadt Marktplatz, with a window overlooking the colourful Christmas Market. Located right next to the 15th century Heilleggeist Kirche (Church of the Holy Spirit), the atmosphere was incredible. Rugging up in puffer jackets, we joined the locals and other tourists who gather from around 4 pm as the dusk settles in, to enjoy a Gluhwein (our mulled wine) or two.  You very quickly forget the cold – but have to watch out for those uneven, narrow cobbled streets by the end of the night! Interestingly, our concern that it could be noisy next to the square at night, was dispelled after the first night. The markets finish at a respectable hour, the cold sends people indoors to fires and a hearty dinner at a reasonable time and our excellent hotel was not only well heated but had very good double-glazing.  Hard to imagine that this festive square was once where witches and heretics were burned at the stake or local miscreants suspended in cages for all to see their torment and shame!

Our first day was spent in a daze of sightseeing, eating and catching up.  Typical of old town environs, everything from the Hotel restaurant to the little traditional pubs features decor with lashings of dark timber, heavily-carved furniture that all give a homely, traditional feel and makes you want to linger. We sampled such delights as Käsespätzle (a “warm the cockles of your heart” type of German macaroni cheese), Bratwürste mit Sauerkraut und Kartoffelpüree (traditional sausage with Sauerkraut and mashed potato) and Apfelstrudel (apple strudel). My new favourite German word and food became Kartoffelpüffer – the name of the German equivalent of Swiss Potato Rosti. The restaurant at our hotel served the traditional Schnitzel dinner exceptionally well and one evening we were lucky to have the front table overlooking the market, watching the snow gently falling on the festivities outside. Breakfast at the “Golden Falcon” is also worthy of mention being varied, plentiful and included in your room price.

Another happy evening was spent at the Kulturbrauerei on the eastern end of the Altstadt. Dripping in atmosphere with painted ceilings, good home-brewed beer and a convivial atmosphere, the food was hearty and traditional and washed down with copious amounts of the obligatory Gluhwein. Tables were long bench type arrangements so you may end up sharing with someone else, but it’s all part of the charm.

 

Our photos certainly don’t do justice to our experience, as the dull skies make everything look a little gloomy, but in reality, it was far from that. The Castle was particularly interesting. Having suffered extensive damage from lightning strikes, wars and fires since its beginnings around the 13th century it had slowly decayed over the centuries after being ransacked by locals for stone and ornamentation. In the 19th century, the ruins were the romantic setting for many painters, writers, poets and those young men and women completing their “Grand Tour” of Europe. Ironic that some 150 years later and after the occupation of Heidelberg by the American military in WWII,  the majority of its present tourists are Japanese or Americans who swarm the observation terraces to take in the spectacular views. There are excellent displays inside the Castle as well – from the intact Apothecary Museum to the World’s Largest Wine Barrel or Heidelberg Tun. Opening hours in Summer are 8am-6pm or Winter from 10am-5.30pm and the reasonable charge of 4-7€ (slightly more for interior as well) it’s a great day out.

This is a town where you don’t have to pay for everything if you just want to wander and drink in the sights and history.  Walk the Alte Brücke (old bridge) c.1786 with its intriguing brass monkey statue and the twin-towers which once formed part of the city wall. Another famous attraction that has inspired many a well-known Poet is the Philosophenweg (Philosopher’s Walk). Established in 1817, the walk reaches an altitude of 200 metres. Along the route, there are botanical displays that would no doubt be quite stunning in Summer, with an eclectic mix of exotic and tropical trees and shrubs. The invigorating walk is well worth the view at the top where you can admire the town from above with fantastic views across the River Neckar and back to the Castle. In Summer the walk is also illuminated at night and must be a sight to see.

The 18th century Rathaus (town hall) is another beautiful building and the Kornmarkt, the old agricultural trading centre/square features the well-known statue of the Madonna with great views of the Schloss (castle) and a photo opportunist’s dream.

In three days we really didn’t leave the old town except to drive out but it was obvious that the town must have been (and still is) a very affluent one judging by the beautiful 19th and 20th century villas on the sides of the Neckar, built to take in panoramic views and all that this lovely destination offers.  It must have been a very “genteel” place to reside or study in days gone by and I know that Mo’s own experience has left a lasting impression on her.  Happy travelling, Liz

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Abastos 2.0 – Galicia, Spain – A meal to remember

Rúa das Ameas na Praza de Abastos, Casetas 13-18
Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Sundays Closed – Tel: +34 654 01 59 37

I’m just back from Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain (detailed post to follow soon, I promise!) but in the meantime, I can’t stop thinking about one of the dinners (and subsequently, lunches) that I had while there…

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Tucked away along the side of Santiago’s market, you can find Abastos 2.0, a buzzing kiosk-sized bar (taberna) with a room-sized restaurant across the alley. If you can’t seem to find it, look out for the deep green awnings and the frantic chefs and waiters running from bar to restaurant with trays of tapas and goblet-sized gin and tonics. I love makeshift, pop-up-feel interiors and this place has taken my obsession to new heights, with exposed walls and piping, concrete floors and lots of half-finished wood and crate slats forming the bulk of their interior furniture and tableware. Then there are the Spanish touches – cherry red lighting to give the kitchen a slightly sultry feel (entirely appropriate when the food is this good), massive turquoise window shutters and quirky cutlery.

The menu is firmly rooted in the culinary history and identity of Galicia, with seafood (molluscs in particular) taking pride of place in both their tapas and tasting menus. As a result, we started our tasting menu with a mollusc-dominated dish – mussels marinated in apple cider vinegar, razor clams dusted with a gin-and-tonic sea foam and clams on apple puree.  Despite misgivings about the mussels (I generally find anything marinated in vinegar to be too heavy), everything was delicious and the pure, fresh flavours meant we could start the “heavier” dishes with a cleansed palate.

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We then moved on to a more Japanese-inspired dish – cod on seaweed with a ricotta cheese sorbet and maize crumble. The flavours reminded me a fusion between fresh sushi and some of the Peruvian cuisine I’ve been trying lately – I’m still not sure the amount of ricotta cheese sorbet worked completely for this dish but it was easily left to one side. Salmon on chestnut pasta followed with a smidgen of avocado and pannacotta cream. Then to separate the fish from the farmyard, we were then served a Galician take on a classic Spanish tomato salad – rocket, salted plum tomatoes and pistachio vinaigrette served on avocado puree. I always think there is so much that can be done with salad and this dish was proof that even with the simplest of ingredients, something delicious can be created.

The centrepiece of the meal was organic, grass-fed beef served with root veggies (potato and carrot) and a touch of rocket with a slightly tangy vinaigrette (my Spanish was unfortunately not good enough to establish what this might have been – but it worked!) The beef was divine, medium rare and well-salted (which I like) and the root vegetable ensemble, although simple, meant there were no distractions from the wonders of Galician steak!

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At this stage in the meal, I had no idea what course we were up to and was feeling a strong sense of post-steak anxiety regarding how much room was actually left in my stomach. Luckily, we were presented with some soothing apple slices sprinkled with grapefruit rind and I could feel myself relaxing into pre-dessert anticipation. It was a bit on the heavy side and probably more up Charlotte’s dessert alley than mine (I’m a cheesecake girl, she’s all about the choc) but that didn’t stop me from scraping the plate clean on my chocolate-cherry slice and passionfruit sorbet.

We finished the evening with a copa – a gin and tonic that quite frankly lives up to its name with copious amounts of gin (warning: you have to say stop or they will keep on pouring..) and a touch of tonic and ice. We’re always keen on trying local gins and as we’d already tried Nordes, which is a bit sweet-salty in the glass, we instead went for a gin called Ginabelle made from Mirabelle and the local Albarino grape.

And how much will this all cost you? Well, you might laugh but with tasting menus at 35 euros and glasses of wine at 3 euros, we happily agreed we had some spending money left over for a tapas lunch the next day – and as usual, Abastos 2.0 did not disappoint…

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Happy travelling, Mo xx

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