I am not a cyclist

I have been known to potter about on a bike, most recently on my beautiful new Cannondale e-Bike, bought in anticipation of this trip.  And (many years ago), proudly conquering 500km of “Big Sky” in central Otago on a real bike…  but that was then.

Now, in Athens, is now – a few days after the end of a week-long tour through Peloponese, a relatively unknown and somewhat untouched part of Greece, steeped in millennia of history going back some 4,000 years.  Combining archaeology with cycling seemed somehow apt – but lack of local knowledge dictated that a supported tour was the way to go as opposed to our more usual Peter-planned European excursions.

This is an annual excursion.  However the cycling boys (previously dubbed Grubbs – generally retired or unemployed biking buddies) who usually muster at least 8 to 10 enthusiasts to climb high mountains in the Pyrenees, Alps or Dolomites, were less enthused by Peloponese (or maybe by Greece in general).

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Only 5 intrepid Grubbs signed up for the Cycle Greece tour – plus me!  The “solution” for non-cyclists being an e-Bike.

Day 0 – going nowhere

Briefing!  And meet our fellow travellers.  Six Kiwis plus 3 Californians (“don’t call us Americans”).  It started badly – the venue, a hotel rooftop bar, decided it was unacceptable for us to gather in the shade because they had “set us up” (no visible evidence) in the blazing sun.  Unhappy, hot and sticky, jetlagged…  not a great basis for a first meeting.

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Introductions revealed little – apart from Gary who talked about the last time he’d been in Greece, supporting his daughter to win Gold in cycling at the 2004 Olympics.  Immediate awe from the non-Kiwis amongst us (of course, we’re already in awe of Gary who is still the strongest cyclist of this bunch and about to turn 80!).  Much googling of the women’s individual pursuit in 2004 ensued!

Joining Peter and I (retired – not!), Gary, Don (almost Gary’s age – also awesome!), John and Stefan (the youngest of the crew), we had Ted (a mortgage broker), George (to be dubbed “the late”) and the lovely Emily (treating herself to her first holiday away from her law firm without her ex).  Definitely a motley crew – and as I might have mentioned, a challenge for the rest to keep up with our sense of humour.

Colleen, our guide – a US convert to all things Greek (philhellene), living in Athens for more than 10 years – and Pete our driver and great bike mechanic, rounded out the group.

Most important question not asked:  “if I give you written instructions, will you read them?”  Would have solved a lot of angst during the trip to know that the answer was, in the main, a resounding NO!  In fact, turns out the thing this group most had in common was that they DID NOT LISTEN to anything at all, making for an interesting week to come!

Day 1 – Boy, is it HOT!
By car to Sofikos, then cycle 68km to Napflio

An early morning coffee before pickup at DIVE – definitely the best coffee in Athens!

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Logistics!  Packing 10 cyclists, 10 bikes and a large assortment of luggage into a van and a car in the narrow parked-up streets of old Athens is a mission, even at 8am.  Unsurprising really that something went wrong – poor Gary arriving in Napflio to discover all his worldly goods (ie. his clothes!) had gone with his cycle bag to the warehouse in Athens for storage.  The first instance of NOT LISTENING!  Everyone else was pretty clear that he was meant to REMOVE his gear from the bike bag before we parted ways with it.  A happy ending – back in Athens the clothes (in two New World cloth bags) were put on the last bus to Napflio, arriving at 8.30pm, thanks to the resourcefulness of the Cycle Greece team!

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A brief pit stop in our 2 hour car journey at the Corinth Canal – a masterpiece of engineering turning the Peloponese “peninsula” into an island!

Onwards to Sofikos, where we all hopped on our bikes, by now in 34C heat!  What should have been a short 34 km ride to Epidavros Theatre turned into a heatstroke nightmare for Peter, who collapsed on arrival and didn’t get to see the amazing ancient theatre, complete with an amateur theatrics group visiting from the UK, reading Shakespeare in the centre to demonstrate the incredible acoustics.

And so to lunch – anything cold! –

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…with another 30km to ride afterwards, into the prettiest town in the Peloponese, so they say.  Napflio did indeed live up to its promise, with a lovely hotel overlooking the seaside.

A brief stop along the way at a 3,000+ year old stone keystone bridge… or if one is to believe our tour guide (who has an MA in history after all), probably built more than 10,000 years ago by a very advanced civilization with supernatural powers to make rocks momentarily light enough for one man to lift into place!  Seriously, I kid you not… back at the bikes, other girl on tour turned to me and said “no, I think you’re right – they used levers”.  One of those “I’m an engineer” moments!

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We lost a few cyclists along the way, who failed to read the instructions properly and stopped at the wrong bridge, with an off-road excursion (what about the “beware of thorns – don’t take the bikes off the road” instruction?) resulting in a flurry of punctures!

Nafplio was full of weekend visitors, with a music festival on.  Visiting dancers from Crete giving a concert on the square outside our hotel drew massive crowds while we settled in for our first of many similar dinners – a veritable feast of ‘snacks’ to start, leaving little room for main course, and none at all for dessert.  I fear our hosts were offended by our exhaustion as one by one we snuck off back to the hotel!

 

Day 2 – A ramble along the back roads
There and back by bike to Ancient Mycenae 25km x 2

4,000 years of civilisation on display – a truly amazing site and sight.  Inside the ancient tomb – no artifacts but one could still marvel at the feat of engineering on display.

Then up the hot hot pathway to the lion gate – it always bemuses me that male lions are used to symbolise guards and the gate when frankly in my experience of observing lions in Africa, the male of the species does precious little other than lie about!

What is incredible (for me at least) is the metalwork – in gold, bronze and (eventually) iron – from these ancient times.  No wonder there is a temple in Athens dedicated to the god of metallurgy!

A bit of a wine tasting that evening – including something sweet for Don – hit the spot before another excessively front-loaded dinner!

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Day 3 – SHIT!  This is HARD!
Napflio to Dimistana –
104km of mostly relentless climbing over 1,500m in all in searing heat!

Thank you, but NO thank you!  Peter, still suffering from heat exhaustion took a raincheck, and I ‘loaned’ Colleen my e-Bike, for a peaceful day spent driving the van, watching our fellow cyclists slogging their over-heated bodies up and down high mountains, and up and down again.

In recognition that this was a very long day, we left the hotel before sunrise, heading to Tripoli – a town of no redeeming features, but the only reasonable place for lunch (donuts!).  A rather depressing town, full of Greek men drinking coffee and reading newspapers strung up on washing lines outside the news agents (presumably because they can’t afford to actually buy one); and the occasional Greek woman popping into the elaborate mini-chapel at the base of the Church steps, presumably to pray for better times (or maybe more productive men!)

And so back to the bikes for yet more climbing, higher and higher… to the most fabulous hotel of the tour in Dimistana, a beautiful old stone building with gorgeous rooms overlooking the gorge.

A special occasion – Don’s 79th birthday – demands champagne!  What a palaver to get champagne – are you sure you don’t want Campari & soda instead?  Only a few euros each vs a massive price tag for Moet?  Heavens!  Well done Peter for making sure we had proper champagne to toast Don’s birthday, and a quickly-melting ice cream cake at the end of the meal too!  The locals no-doubt thought we were quite mad!

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Day 4:  Downhill all the way!

Every hill climb has its reward (even for those of us who didn’t actually do the climb) – and so we left Dimistana (in a chilly 15C temperature for which I was perhaps a little under dressed!)

A leisurely ride, more to our taste, with plenty of coffee stops along the way – now that’s more like it!  Even time to buy some honey – there are beehives everywhere!

We lost a few of our number along the way – damn, shoulda read those cue sheets, people!  But most of us made it on the appointed route, along the cycleway into Olympia, the home of the ancient Olympic games.

A family hotel, run by a Greek man and his Australian wife – very welcoming, but the only bad bed of the tour, at least for those of us who don’t warm to “lumpy and soft” in the mattress department.

Susanna welcomed us into her kitchen for a ‘lesson’ – no recipes in sight, just a handful of this and a pinch of that.  We made tzatziki and tiropitakia, stuffed peppers and tomatoes from her garden, and greek meatballs…  and ate it all for dinner!  After a few nights of pretty average wine, Peter took matters in hand and selected a few bottles from the host’s rack – that’s better!

And so to our lumpy bed, looking forward to our tour of Olympia tomorrow!

EPISODE 1 complete.  EPISODE 2 to follow.

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A new day – Athens redeems itself

A perfect addition to any holiday – an amazing specialist coffee store, with its own roaster, just one block away, AND they open at 6am.  Great start to the day (sadly, discovered the following morning that this does not apply on weekends).

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So onwards and upwards to the actual purpose of the trip – time to get on that bike.  My tour-provided e-bike is ALMOST a replica of the one I have back home, just without the Cannondale logo.  A trial run doing a 3 hour ride around Athens – thankfully 90% off road, meaning the only challenge was navigating the pedestrians who pay not one blind bit of attention to my madly dinging bell as I pull up behind them.  A minor spill – no damage done to me or bike – as a pedestrian pushed me into a kerb;  my trusty sweeper guide said “good, you know how to fall”!  I laughed and assured him I’d had plenty of practice.

Colleen our guide – an American lawyer who gave up her law practice to move to Athens 14 years ago – is a mine of information;  with a delivery style best described as “enough but not too much”.  We did a loop mainly on the Acropolis walkway, taking in points of interest along the way.

Socrates prison – a cave in the rock with iron bars, where he was incarcerated for corrupting young minds with thinking stuff;  the Pnyx, a completely unassuming ‘field’ where the first democratic assemblies were held – 14,000 people, men only of course.  A side excursion to see a ceiling painted by the man who will be our driver on the tour;  a brief stop of Syntagma Square to view the tail end of the very elaborate changing of the guard (basically men doing what could best be described as dressage).  Most fascinating was the ordinary soldier, who when the two guards had come to a stop at their guard houses, visited each in term to arrange them in exactly the right place, straighten their shoulder pads, hats and particularly tassels, before inviting the crowd up to take photos (but not too close).  As soon as anyone got close enough to be in the picture, the guard would bang the base of his rifle on the stone to summon the soldier to remove said intruder.

Realisation of the day – if you can’t pave your streets in gold, why not just pave them in marble!  Great for maintenance, but bloody hard on the feet.

The obligatory greek salad for lunch – did I say that the tomatoes here are amazing, possibly the best part of Greece so far?  And then “home” for a lazy afternoon (or in Peter’s case, a bit of a catchup on work stuff).  I really do need to get some done myself, but taking a surprisingly Greek attitude to that (“domani” or some such thing).

Useless fact – on the 1st day of the months, Greeks use a special greeting – happy month – when they greet each other.  Sure beats “a pinch and a punch for the first of the month”.  Note for Isabel!

Our week long cycling tour began with a 6pm briefing, and a meet your fellow travellers session at the rooftop bar in the hotel where we were meant to stay before Debra decided to AirBnB it.  The kiwi contingent arrived early, thinking we’d have a beer together before the others got there – but no, sorry, we’re not ready for you (despite other guests having drinks), and no you can’t sit in the shade, we’ve made your space over there (in the blazing sun).  The words “naff off” passed some lips, as we gathered a bunch of bar stools and sat in the middle of the thoroughfare in front of the bar, defiantly ignoring the consternation this was causing.  “Wow”, said Stefan, “if this was a Kiwi bar we’d all have a beer in hand by now.”

Discovery of the afternoon – the Kiwi sense of humour is going to be a challenge for our three Californian fellow-cyclists, and our Greco-American guide for that matter.  Peter’s suggestion that we chuck Don and Gary (the oldest cyclists ever to do this tour) out at the bottom of the hill (we start at the top) so they can warm up before the start was met with bemusement.

More about the cyclists later – next stop dinner with Stefan and Peter, just the three of us attracted to a rather gorgeous restaurant, appropriate named Sense – and boy, was it a treat for the senses!  A balcony table (so long as you leave by 9.30pm) overlooking the Acropolis as the sun set in the background, fine dining service and food to match, and of course, great company.

I’m still salivating over the pigeon (breast and leg, perfectly boned out) with smoked vegetable accoutrements;  the boys had suckling pig – a shared mouthful confirmed this as definitely the next best choice.

And can I say – who knew about olive oil ice-cream, well, semi-freddo (served in a frozen lemon shell, with another filled with a lemon sorbet which would have been the pick of the night, but for its friend on the plate!)  I NEED that RECIPE!

Leaving the wine choices to the waiter – we are, after all, Greek wine virgins – was an excellent decision with two fabulously different bottles of gorgeous red wine, perhaps served in the wrong order, but he wasn’t to know about Kiwi drinking habits, after all.

All in all, a very good day…  and looking forward to hitting the road to Peloponesia and first stop Nafplio for two nights.

 

Welcome to Athens, with a gang of pickpockets on the side

I often think that the only disadvantage we have, living in New Zealand, is that everywhere is just so bloody far away (well, everywhere that counts, anyway) – and some might say this is an advantage!  What it does mean, of course, is that getting to those far flung places still on the bucket list takes time, effort and energy.

Perhaps we’re just getting old – but this year our pilgrimage to Europe started with what I was calling a ‘slow plane’ to Athens, stopping off at Singapore for an extended 14 hours stopover (longer than intended due to airline schedule changes after we’d already booked).  Never mind – we thought having a full day in Singapore, one of our favourite places from past travel, would break up the long journey, and give us time to start re-setting our body clocks.  In fact, what it meant was that we were just doubly tired, in fact completely exhausted by the time we arrived in Athens (via a short stopover in Istanbul to change planes).

But before I get to Athens, a few observations.

It was great to see that Peter hasn’t lost his touch at staring down officious wait staff who take that “sorry we don’t have a table for you” approach, when the restaurant (in this case the breakfast room at Raffles Hotel in Singapore) is visibly heaving with emptiness, and our man simply thinks that because we’re not staying in the hotel, we might not be able to pay for their generously priced a la carte menu.  “Perhaps you’d like to look at the menu before I prepare a table” he offered weakly in response to Peter’s stare-down.  Harrumph!  Sometimes it’s just so rewarding to flash that Platinum Visa Card (but only at the end of the meal, of course – and he wasn’t to know they’re a dime a dozen in New Zealand!)

A bit of retail therapy confirmed that the store we’re most missing in New Zealand is NOT, as some may think, Ikea, but actually UniQlo.  Please please find yourselves a site in Auckland!

Oh, and a message for Air New Zealand who helpfully prepared all our boarding passes at check-in in Auckland.  Yes, you’re still fabulous compared to other airlines (though the gap is closing, as you join the downward spiral of waning customer service!)

But it’s the little things that count, especially when, like me, you’re a Star Alliance Gold traveller choosing to fly Economy Class.  I know that’s my choice, and I long long ago gave up hoping for an upgrade, BUT seriously:  In what parallel universe is it okay to seat your apparently most valuable customers in Row 41 of a plane that only has 42 rows.  By then – the last leg of our journey – I had completely lost any sense of humour or rationality, and was just deeply pissed off!

And so to Athens…. a city of ruins, of amazing tomatoes, of streets teeming with tourists (still, in September), of unbelievably bad parking in narrow streets which seem almost permanently gridlocked…  and pickpockets.  Having traveled the world, including some pretty crime ridden places like Johannesburg and Rio, having evaded a gang of thieves who targeted us in the old market in Buenos Aires, having that sixth sense from growing up in a highly security conscious environment, I can honestly say we have never encountered such an orchestrated organised gang of petty thieves.

They bundled us, literally, into a carriage on the Metro on a train that we knew was going in the wrong direction.  About 10 men surrounded Peter, apparently “helping” him with his luggage as the doors were closing, having shoved me into the carriage and out of their encirclement…  I knew it wasn’t right, knew we had to get off the carriage at the next stop, but by then the damage was done.  A secure travel wallet had been opened, and the zipped bag of cash extracted – so slickly that Peter was completely unaware it had happened when the train drew to a halt in at the next stop and we both shoved our way out, up onto the street and into a waiting taxi.  We thought we’d had a lucky escape!

I’m pretty sure it was the effects of our long journey – tiredness and inattention – that made up such easy marks.  I asked Peter “what did they get” – nothing, he said, that’s why I have this secure travel wallet…  but lo and behold, when he opened it to pay the taxi, the cash purse was ALL GONE!  Bastards!  Thankfully the cards (and passports!!!) were still there – as a slightly concerned taxi driver, mostly concerned that he might not be paid, drove us through the snail-like traffic to find the nearest ATM.

Oh dear!  It could only improve from here – although I have to say I didn’t think it was improving much when I discovered a spiral staircase of 45 steps up to our apartment, and a cold shower.  The latter was quickly remedied by reading the host’s instructions to turn on the boiler – instructions that our fellow travelers had apparently missed – the stairs, however, remain firmly in place.

As an aside, Greek plumbing is interesting, and probably the topic of whole separate post, with photos, in days to come!

On the plus side, the bed is comfortable, our four fellow cyclists are not complaining – though I suspect they were hoping for something a little more like the gem I found in Girona last year – and there is plenty of food in the surrounding streets.  A HUGE bonus for me and Peter was to find a truly professional coffee roaster, serving the most amazingly crafted coffees from SIX AM in the morning, just one block away!  I was his first customer this morning.  Only one small suggestion for improvement – “Coffee Dive” is probably not the most customer-attracting name (though perhaps it means something else in Greek).

And while we’re on the topic of names,  then there’s the lovely effusively welcoming Harry, at Gods’ Restaurant.

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With a menu running to about 10 pages, he simply asked “what do you feel like eating, are you hungry or not so hungry” and then made beautiful recommendations – and came through with some very drinkable local wines as well.  Not all of our party took to this style of eating – menus are for reading and considering after all – but some of us were just relieved to have someone else telling us what to eat (My Food Bag, anyone?)

So to bed…  some 60 hours after leaving Auckland, we were pretty much asleep before our heads hit the pillow!  Up next, cycling, with a  bit of history on the side.

Third time lucky in the art-tourism stakes

Part of the attraction of visiting San Sebastián – apart from the fabulous dinner at Mugaritz, was the opportunity to visit the Guggenheim in Bilbao. After an abortive plan to spend Monday in Bilbao – fortunately this time discovered the museum was closed on Monday BEFORE we set out for the longish drive – we rescheduled this excursion for our last day, on the way (well, sort of) back to Barcelona.

Expectations were high ~ clearly too high. This museum of modern art has surprisingly little actual art on display, though the building itself is most definitely a work of art in its own right.

DSC_0978DSC_0976The main exhibition on display – with much breathless excitement apparent in the commentary – was room after room filled with the ‘cells’ of Louise Bourgeois – an artist who spent most of her 95 years of life re-living the terror of her childhood memories by building dozens of what are literally small rooms filled with seriously weird and warped stuff.

Far far too deep and meaningful for me… Though I’m sure Dali would have approved (and probably did).


So with two truly weird art experiences under our belt, it was with some trepidation that we set off on our one afternoon in Barcelona for the Picasso Museum, the one thing we missed off our must-see list last time we were in Barcelona.

And third time lucky it certainly was. This time the weird stuff – etchings bordering on offensive, though apparently there are even more offensive ones which were Norton display – was overtaken by the sheer beauty some of his other work, and what a prolific artist he was! I particularly loved his line drawings of bullfighting – not politically correct, I know, but I had to admire the visible movement that he managed to achieve with a few lines of black ink.

And so our Holiday in not-Spain came to an end.  We farewelled Rob, who was joining Jenna and a herd of friends for a music festival that weekend (coincidentally staying literally around the corner from our last night Barcelona hotel)!   Next stop Jordan….

Foodie heaven

The Spain that is not Spain has many attractions;  and the greatest of all is the food.  Somehow, this part of the world has encouraged, nurtured and perhaps bred a level of refined culinary exploration that may be unsurpassed globally.

So first Girona.  Amidst a plethora of tourist cafes, serving up perfectly good ham and cheese sandwiches and rolls, and moderately acceptable coffee, are many, many fabulous restaurants waiting to be discovered, if only one can stay awake long enough!

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Our bunch of cyclists had some difficulty falling into the Spanish habit of eating dinner at 9pm, with most actual restaurants only opening their doors at 8.30pm.

In fact, the one that took our group booking for 8 people at 8.15pm, yay, actually turned us away because they were still mopping the floors when we arrived – come back in half an hour, they said.  The boys were not happy!

Nevertheless we managed to have several great restaurant experiences, both with the cyclists and with Rob when he arrived for the second part of our three-part holiday.  I’m not going to regale you with a blow by blow account of every meal…  though the 25 course degustation at Mugaritz, with 7 extra bites at the end was surely the crowning glory – more on that at the end.

But meanwhile back in Girona, a few learnings.

Lesson 1.  The discovery that ‘gazpacho’ does not need to be made with tomatoes!  Well, I guess in classical kitchens it does, but the strawberry & cherry gazpacho I had to start a meal in a restaurant we happened on by chance was a revelation, and something I will definitely be experimenting with when summer rolls around back home.  (Turns out this is a “thing” – recipe at http://www.thelastcookie.ca/cherry-strawberry-gazpacho/)

Tart and Refreshing Gazpacho

Lesson 2.  No matter how well you think you’ve trained your staff, you can’t build a fine dining experience with people who have themselves never dined finely!  A learning from our visit to L’Alqueria, currently rated the number 2 restaurant in Girona behind the acclaimed Cellar de Can Roca (with its 12 month waiting list, and the venue for our previous ‘best ever’ eating experience).

This incredibly difficult to find restaurant down a little alleyway was finally found, our booking for 10 acknowledged and the first 7 of us shown to our table two floors up.  But where are the 3 amigos?  Turns out Don and the boys were downstairs being refused entry, while upstairs we were being roundly ignored by the two staff, who were completely flummoxed by an incomplete table.  Eventually Don used his mobile phone to call down a rescue party!

Next Peter orders some cava to start the meal, and asks for a bottle of red wine to be opened in anticipation…  waiter rushes around apparently trying to find 10 flutes for the cava, then puts out the red wine glasses, asks Peter to taste the red and shares it out between the other 9 wine glasses – failing to top Peter’s glass up, or to pour the cava at all!

And oh my, when the next bottle of red was something different… clearly he knew he was meant to bring new glasses (but no one had told him to take the old ones away).

Eventually, you could barely see the table for the array of empty glassware!  At which point, we formed a chain-gang, passing empty glasses along to Peter who was sitting close enough to an empty side table to arrange them there!  The waiters watched us clear the table without intervening.

And inexplicably, having billed themselves as a restaurant specialising in rice dishes, and indeed, with a full page of different paellas and another of risottos on the menu…  Sorry, we can only do 2 rice dishes per table.  Those who want rice have to agree on two of the many options, which can be served in as many portions as required.  Weird!  Fortunately at that point most of our table opted for something else, while Kevin, Peter and I selected two different paellas, neither if which, I have to say, were particularly spectacular.

Lesson 3.  You should always make space for the degustation menu.  Sorry Rob, we really should have had that menu at Nu… Don’t know what I was thinking!  Thankfully the waiter persuaded us to order many dishes anyway for all to share, and it has to be said, the food was spectacular, and the service outstanding.  As it turned out we did try 6 of the 11 dishes on that night’s degustation – including the interesting guacamole with lime ice cream, and the outstanding salt baked foie gras with cookies and banana ice cream.  At Nu, ice cream is not (necessarily) a dessert (maybe that should be lesson 4).  Highlight of the night, I think we all agreed, was the scallops, Iberian pork and ham parmentier.  As I write this (sitting in Jordan) I’m tempted to head out into the hills to hunt down a wild pig!

Lesson 4.  It takes leadership to effect a group decision.  At the aforementioned LLevetaps, when we finally returned after they’d finished mopping the floors, I’m slightly embarrassed (but unrepentant) to say I may have forced the whole table into the degustation menu…

(Image from restaurant website)

On the basis that we could only do it if everyone did it, and the alternative, guys, is to wade your way through this Spanish menu and decide for yourself what you’re goin to eat (and by the way, if we take the matched wine options, we don’t even need to worry about what we’re going to drink either).  Billed as the best tapas restaurant in Girona, they did not disappoint, with amazing food and the equivalent of the “bottomless pot” when it came to the matched wines.  Highlights of the 8 course meal – the octopus?  the pork? the amazing lemon verbena dessert…  Too hard, I’ll let you peruse the menu and decide, though for me the octopus was a revelation – giant rounds of tentacle, akin to pork fillet, perfectly cooked with a richness of flavour that trumped all else.

And so to San Sebastián, with its amazing pintxos, its ancient cidery where we literally pigged out on a set end with a truly giant T-bone steak as one of several full meals on a plate all seven in succession, with encouragement to visit the barrel room frequently for a refill of cider – every barrel different, try them all!  (Not that we did!)

Mugaritz was, as I said, the crowing glory – the primary purpose of our 600km road trip across the top of Spain.  A half-hour taxi ride up into the hills delivered us to an airy room, minimally decorated tables set with white cloths and an artfully arranged broken white plate on each.  They checked (again) whether we had any food ‘issues’ … ‘Only one’, said Peter, ‘we don’t like bad food’.

Unlike our last “top restaurants of the world” adventure to Osteria Francescana in Modena, which was positively snooty, Mugaritz was friendly, welcoming – ‘we want you to have fun with the food’, out waiter encouraging us to eat with our fingers – cutlery only provided when absolutely necessary.

Over the next 3 1/2 hours, 25 small bites followed, each perfectly presented, almost too beautiful to eat.  Some were amazing, some interesting, and only one really weird – the final dessert course of a tiny Michelin Man marshmallow, which was deliciously light, floating in a white broth described as “oxidised wine” which was frankly an assault on the taste buds.  Top picks were hard to agree on…  For me, the scallops with veal tendon and lemon – the tendon thinly stretched over the scallop in its shell, adding riches which was beautifully cut by the lemon dressing.  I was pleased there were two each!  The roast garlic which concentrated lamb broth – lamb’y garlic rather than garlicky lamb was amazing…

And just when we thought it was over, the tower of the seven deadly sins arrived on the table.  Taking off the first lid, we found pride – three hollow shells of gold plated chocolate, followed by envy – one choc only, leaving the rest envious, and so it continued.

Seven Deadly Sins Tower

It was also fascinating to watch the other tables having not quite the same things – perhaps they had specified food foibles – and to visit the kitchen to see the lists for each table being efficiently crossed off as courses were delivered one by one.  A truly extravagant indulgence, a real foodie experience, and yes, we definitely had fun!  Even the slightly hair raising ride back down to the coast in a taxi with limited braking function was part of the adventure!

A week later, as I faced yet another blander than bland meal of “Jordanian specialty”, I thought it was probably just as well that we ended our holiday with lots of exercise and less tempting food.  After all, life’s all about balance – and I can’t wait to start experimenting with more not-Spanish flavours when we get home!

You’re not in Spain now!

What has been billed in my mind throughout the planning process as “our trip to Spain” turns out to not have been to Spain at all.

While not overt, it was clear in our first two weeks in Catalonia that this is a region, and a people, in the midst of a ‘self-determination’ debate.  The Catalonian flag of independence flew from every other balcony, though interestingly, not always in exactly the same colour.

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Our questions about the differences between the red star vs the blue starred ones were mostly met with shrugs – reminiscent of that inimitable French shrug with which I am so familiar. The anti-independence cafe owner we asked about it, somewhat disparagingly explained that the ‘official’ flag of Catalonia is the striped red and yellow one – apparently created by a French general at some stage in the past when the Catalonyan armies came to his rescue, and lost their leader in the process.  It is said he dipped his fingers in the Catalonyan blood and drew the four red stripes across a golden shield.  This is the official flag of Catalonia, a province of Spain.

But in a quite recent unauthorised referendum, supported by the provincial politicians, but not endorsed by the Spanish government, the population apparently voted to secede… with the forces for independence apparently agreeing on their new flag construct – a triangle with a star superimposed on the stripes, but not on its colour.  All this reminding me of the ridiculous flag referendum in NZ where two of the choices were simply different colours of the same design, which split the vote, and arguably resulted in the old flag being retained for now.

But I digress…

So Catalonia remains very much part of Spain for now – apparently, according to a tour guide we spoke to, having rejected the halfway house of devolved government in a semi-federal arrangement as has been implemented in other northern provinces.  The Catalonian language is visible in the bilingual signage, and I guess audible for those with an ear for these things.  But it was, as I said, not overt… maybe there are so many tourists from the rest of Spain that it’s all blending in….

In contrast, heading west through the Pyrenees to Basque Country, the divide became much clearer.  Bilingual street signs gave way to separate signs – sometimes one on each side of the road, leading to massive confusion for map readers… and reflecting what we discovered to be an aggressively separate-from-Spain people and culture.  Human remains discovered recently date the Basque people to being in the region more than 5000 years ago, with evidence of their seafaring forebears having reached the ‘new world’ across the Atlantic, along with the Vikings, centuries before Columbus.

In San Sebastián, the language of choice is Uscera, a language completely unrecognisable from Spanish, since it predates Latin.  With roots apparently in Ethiopia, it is one of the oldest languages still in use on the planet (though Rob informs me, courtesy of Dr Google, that the actual oldest language in Europe is actually Lithuanian).  In the Basque region, schools use Usecera as the mother-tongue.  As the kids get to 7 or 8 years, we were told, they start doing one day a week in English.  Eventually Spanish is introduced, but only for a couple of hours a week.  An interesting message, there.

We did a fascinating tour with a retired US serviceman, married into a Basque family.  A couple of hours trawling an edited history of the region, including the impact of Franco – most visible in the one ugly building blotting the skyline…  Looks like a prison, said one of our fellow tourists, mirroring my thought that it looked like John Foster Square (police HQ) in Johannesburg!  But no, apparently it’s residential – “just like Soviet Russia” said another.

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Keith, our guide, regaled us with tales of the past and the present… Franco, he said, was on a mission to “make Spain great again”.  I really wanted to ask if, as a US citizen, he was concerned about the parallels with Trump’s rhetoric, but in the interests of group harmony, I refrained (out fellow groupees being “official barbecue judges” from Kentucky – I kid you not!).  He talked about ETA, and the parallels with the IRA …  I wondered if Keith himself might be what is euphemistically called a “government employee”?  This tour guide gig would be the perfect cover, and he talked at length about doing drug-enforcement duties in South America…  Another thought I kept to myself.

According to Keith, and indeed similar to what our grumpy Girona cafe owner had said, a lot of the tension is economic.  Here in the north, people work (well, not that hard – see later comments) but they do work.  The people in the south are lazy (or appear to be, it’s often 40 degrees in the shade after all) and the money from the north goes to fund the less-productive (shall we say) people in the south.

Mind you, Keith did go on to explain that the average working person doesn’t actually work all that much either.  Explaining how pintxos (Basque tapas) works, and how to eat like a local, he told us that a typical working day starts at 10am (after you’ve walked the dog – everyone seems to have a dog, despite living in tiny apartments – had your swim in the sea, and picked up a coffee and a pastry, to get you through till morning tea time, at about 11.45am, when you pop out for your first pintxos and a glass of wine or cider.

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Then it’s back to work for an hour or two, while you make plans to meet your friends for lunch.  Around 1.45pm you might meet some friends in a pintxos bar, for one or two drinks and bites to eat in anticipation of your menu of the day, three course lunch which starts around 2pm, with half a bottle of wine per person included (though it has to be said, if you are a real wine drinker, you will want to select – and pay for – your wine separately rather than drink the Ribena-like stuff included in the menu price!).  Around 4pm you will return to work until about 8pm – this is when any ‘real’ work gets done, though one has to wonder about the possibility of doing your best work on what could easily by now be your first bottle of wine for the day!  And that also explains why restaurants don’t open until 8.30pm in the main…  People are at work!

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If one is to believe Keith, most people don’t take work all the seriously anyway – they’re just working to get through to the retirement cheque, when they can spend their days at the beach or the park, eating and drinking on the government.  The fact that these cheques come from Madrid – central government – is a significant deterrent to the population voting to completely break away from Spain.

The second part of what turned out to be a nearly 6 hour tour was basically a pub crawl – visiting 5 different traditional pintxos bars, for a carefully well-matched drink and “snack” at each…  foodie heaven!  Showing us how to eat like a local – claim your ‘real estate’ when you walk in (a patch of counter or bar space – these are stand-up eating experiences);   don’t take a plate or cutlery (unless what you’re eating really needs it), especially don’t treat the array of food like a buffet!

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We quickly started ‘judging’ people with a large plate, loading up, as being seriously culturally unaware!  Lean forward and bite… The lean needs to be far enough that any drips fall on the floor, not your front – and then drop your toothpick and napkin on the floor to follow.  Don’t have more than one, or maybe two if you must, at any place before moving on to the next.  You can tell where the locals eat – the floor is covered in napkins and debris, and the place is empty by about 2.30pm when they head onwards to their real lunch.

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Apparently on the weekend, the process repeats – only at a much more leisurely pace, and in much larger groups, as whole families roam the streets grazing on this and that before somehow miraculously agreeing on where to lunch.  Keith talked about his Basque family of maybe 15 or 16 people visiting 3 or 4 pintxos bars on the way to lunch… Kids, oldies all in tow!  Having experienced first hand the difficulty of getting a small group of cyclists to agree where to eat, I marvelled at the fact that 16 people could visit not one, but 4 or 5 bars and restaurants in a single day, and apparently all hang together doing so.

They then stay out -kids and all – often until the early hours of the morning, socialising, snacking…  ‘Back home’, said Keith, ‘I’d get a visit from child protection services’, but here the kids are included in everything.  Especially, it seems, the eating and drinking that is so very much part of this amazing part of the world.

If there is a single item of food that I wish I could smuggle back home, it would be a large hind leg ham of black-hoofed Iberian pig – a taste beyond description, sold on the streets as a paper cone filled with ham slices – heaven!

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Instead, I’m bringing back a pintxos recipe book, planning that pintxos party in the not too distant future.

And determined to henceforth refer to this holiday as the one when we were not in Spain!

A world of weirdness

I am not an art critic.  I have no ‘art’ credentials, some might say no taste either!  So a tour of the life and works of Salvidor Dali – visiting both his home in Port Lligat and his Theatre Museum in Figueres, was more perplexing than perhaps it might have been.

Of course, I have come across Dali before – his red lips sofa, his melting clock, his obsession with eggs and of course his ubiquitous moustache.

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What I hadn’t appreciated was his obsession with stuffed animals – from the 3 swans that he used to feed on the beach, which on death were stuffed and displayed in his library, to the grotesque rhinoceros head set amid giant eagle wings, to the two kid goats in his bedroom and the jewellery adorned polar bear in his entrance hall….  I knew immediately this was a man I simply could not like!

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The house would, in other circumstances (ie. with different less famous owners) have been condemned as a monument to knock-knackery in particularly bad taste.  Instead, people take what is a tortuously slow and windy drive on an unreasonably busy road to visit the house where tickets must be booked and paid for in advance, and collected no less than 20 minutes before your appointed tour time.  Each tour – at 20 minute intervals – is limited to just 8 people.  The ticketing system means that each group has to hang about in a place where there is nothing else to do, and precious little shelter from the rain that started falling on our arrival.  Perhaps I was not in the best state of mind to appreciate the brilliance of what for me was simply weird.  It felt like Dali had increasing been playing out a huge practical joke on his adoring public, pausing the boundaries of what they would accept as art simply because it had his name on it.

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If not for the taxidermy, I might have shown more sympathetic interest in how this weirdness came about.  What sort of childhood did he have, why did he love flies so much he would honey the ends of his moustache to attract them?  And why did he love the sound of crickets – so much that had a Lille cage of crickets embedded in his bedroom wall?  But I really did care enough to find out.

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Two things did pique my interest… an oval room where, if you stand in the very centre and talk, you can’t hear anything other than your voice literally reverberating through your body (but no one else in the room can hear the echoes).  I thought it was fascinating and really wanted to know how it was done – who wouldn’t want a room where you can only hear the sound of your own voice?  Oh, wait, now I’m sounding weird.

The second useful idea was a mirror, carefully positioned in the bedroom so that he could lie in bed and see the sunrise …  I could do that at home, I thought.

The theatre museum in Figueres – we devoted our single non-cycling day to this excursion – was slightly less weird, probably only because it wasn’t a place where people actually lived.  But now that I survey the photographs, actually also pretty weird.  As an artist he was prolific.

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His jewels were a highlight for me – intricate pieces of precious metals and stones, perhaps a little less weird than the rest.

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Judge for yourself – a genuis, an artist, and a truly scarily weird man!  I leave the last word to the man himself:  “There is only one difference between a madman and me.  The madman thinks he is sane.”

Girona Grubbs

A week of vicarious enjoyment of cycling in Girona has brought with it a rich mix of expectations delivered, with a sprinkling of new discoveries.

Not, let me be clear, that I am actually doing any cycling myself!    As a non-cycling hanger on to this, the annual pilgrimage to one or other of the cycling meccas of Europe provides a rich opportunity to observe the subculture that, in our part of the world, is labelled MAMILs – middle aged men in Lycra.  This time, we have a group of ‘grubbs’ – generally retired or unemployed biking buddies – though still very much in Lycra.  The label, and the fact that for the first time, bikes have been hired here rather than transported across the world, signals a slightly more relaxed approach, compared to previous trips.

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Unusually, this group is lacking one of those classic alpha-males, of the must-beat-the-rest-to-the-top variety.  With ages ranging across three decades, this is a group that rides together by choice.   Each morning they set out, not too much later than the agreed time… though it has to be said there was quite a lot of standing around waiting for everyone to be ready to go.

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The small frustrations of the first morning – when everyone was collecting their bikes, sorting out the fittings, remembering to eat!, discovering water bottles not yet filled – were not thankfully repeated, as everyone got more organised, discovering, for example,that the lift to our apartment could carry two bikes at a time if packed just right.    We quickly fell into a routine, settling on the next day’s ride over dinner the night before – the local bike shop a mine of information, and provider of a Garmin pre-loaded with the recommended ride for the day.  Morning started with coffee – our apartment equipped with an almost barista quality coffee machine – followed by breakfast, drink bottle filling, tyre pumping and so on.

Rides were varied, but generally brought the group home mid afternoon, with tales and sometimes photos of fields of wild poppies, beautiful scenery, and occasional dramas – “someone” not carrying spare tubes, or wandering off, or being unwilling to take instruction in appropriate bunch riding etiquette…  Having spent a generally peaceful morning pottering about old Girona, the two non-cycling wives would find them, at one of the preferred cafes, drinking beer and eating ham and cheese toasties.   


Laundry was the next priority, our apartment equipped with a decent washer but no drier, meaning that the lounge was generally taken up with a rather full clothes drying rack.  Then occasionally, another walk in the old town…

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The day they road out to the coast – Tossa del Mar on the Costa Brava – I braved getting the car out and taking a drive to meet them for lunch, though it has to be said, we were a little waylaid by a spectacular garden a bit further down the coast, and arrived in Tossa to find they’d already eaten.

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Oh well… we looked after the bikes while they walked up to the castle to see the sights.  I can report that the Mediterranean is extremely blue, extremely clear in these parts, but bloody cold!  People at the beach were mainly baking themselves on what was a very stony shale-like beach.  Reinforced my preference for sitting off the beach, with glass in hand, looking at the sea!

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Getting a group of 10 people to make a decision about dinner was perhaps our biggest challenge, made even harder by the realisation a few days in that the reason we’d only found what can only be described as pretty poor cafeteria type food was that the actual restaurants don’t open their doors until about 8.30pm.  At that point I took matters (and the list of recommendations from our AirBNB host) into my own hands, and decided that we would have at least two good dinners out – more about those later.

As the weekend passed the group started shrinking, with the departure of Paul & Helen on Saturday to return to London to move flats on Sunday.  I headed off in the same direction on Monday morning – to a much-anticipated conference in London, leaving the group of Grubbs to fend for themselves for the final few days.  I hear the tour was pronounced a success – with plenty of discussion about where to next.  I heard mention of Tasmania (much closer to home) or perhaps Norway!  I guess it will depend on who steps up to do the organisation – these tours don’t happen on their own!  And this one will be a hard act to follow.

Childhood memories

Travelling through the North Western Cape has been like a trip down memory lane. Not that I’m suggesting the people and places are in any way ‘behind the times’ – not at all. It’s just that they have retained the history and traditions that I left behind 40 or 50 years ago.

Tuis-nywerheid (home industries) stores in every small outpost, stacked chockablock with goodies that Ouma used to make – vetkoek, koeksisters, melktert, soetkoekies, beskuit in half a dozen varieties… Not to mention the knitting, crocheted doilies and covered coat hangers!

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I even have become adept at ordering my wortelkoek in Afrikaans. Peter, surprisingly, has become heeltemal tweetalig… Falling easily into a conversation in Afrikaans with the garage attendant a few days back about the stukkende wiel!

People are genuinely amazed when we progress beyond “baie dankie”, leading to all sorts of questions about us and our lives. Genuine interest from lovely people.

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Our two nights in the Sophia Guesthouse in Garies did not disappoint.- though it was not without a few shocks (from the shower taps, real electric shocks!). With no electrician in town, I was vaguely tempted to “phone a friend” – I mean, I do know a couple of electrical workers- but in the end we just reported the fault, and used a hand towel to turn the taps on and off!

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The place itself was like the Kingdom of knickknackery, from the front door to the bathroom and beyond, run by the generous, bustling Elizna – a refugee from Johannesburg – who has clearly found a home for her vast collection of egg cups, teapots, flower bowls and general whatnots. Despite being the “self-catering” cottage, there was a full English breakfast every morning, and on the second night she announced they were cooking “lamb kerrie” for dinner, if we would like some served in the cottage. It came complete with peaches, jelly and custard for dessert – a long time since I’ve seen jelly made with ideal milk!

And yes, I was the annoying foreign person who scoured the store shelves of Garies for butter – and no, sorry people, but margarine is NOT butter! They have spreadable margarine, baking margarine, low fat margarine… But definitely no “egte botter”!

From there it was on to Clanwilliam – over the scenic route across the Cedarberg.  Another day of hindsight pronouncing that we should have hired a 4WD vehicle!

Two unexpected and special treats awaited – first our host who turned out to be an amazing quilt artist – check out http://www.enidviljoenquilts.jimdo.com – besides running a really lovely B&B. We loved the quilts so much we’re bringing one of them home with us!   This is just one of many gorgeous examples, this one hanging in our bedroom called Burning Desire.


And second that my cousin Belinda – who I last saw when we were literally children – actually lives in (or more correctly) on a farm remotely near Clanwilliam. Thanks to the wonders of Facebook, we not only connected but arranged for what Peter and I expected would be a quick drop-in for a coffee and hello before we headed on to our next destination.

What a treat awaited us. Belinda and her lovely husband Willie made us so welcome, showed us their huge and amazing rooibos tea farm, the wild flowers, the caves, the bushman paintings…


They fed us boerewors rolls for lunch before sending us on our way with a store of newfound knowledge about life on their farm, how the tea is grown, harvested and dried, how they grow lucerne trees to feed the sheep, and use donkeys (and an Anatolian sheep dog) to protect the sheep from leopards! Genuinely another world…

But most of all, I really loved reconnecting and talking about our mutual grandparents, and family members in general (though I have to admit a small problem on my part keeping track of which “Oupa” was which!)  A fantastic catchup… and not without its drama, when as we were about to leave, Peter discovered he’d dropped his cellphone somewhere out there on the farm. Willie and son Brendan sprang into action heading in different directions to search – found in the cave, where we crawled through the rocks! Many “baie dankies” to you all! It was SO lovely to catch up we may even return one day soon!

And thank you to you and to all the warm, kind Afrikaner folk we met along the way who reminded me so much of my childhood!  This part of the world is truly your place, as it has been for generations, and it is wonderful to be reminded that in some places at least in this rainbow nation, there are good people just getting on with their lives in mutual harmony.