Planes, trains, and automobiles

Driving through the South of France and Spain

View from our cottage outside Carcassonne

This autumn we’ve had both my, and 416expat’s parents visit.  In our experience, visiting parents are an excuse to travel and to get out of London.

With 416expat’s parents we flew to the South of France, explored Carcassonne and even popped over into Spain for a few hours.  We stayed via airbnb in a beautiful cottage on a wine estate in Languedoc, France.  Our hosts were able to provide recommendations for local markets, restaurants, and gave us a fantastic tasting of their wines.

Driving from the South of France into Spain

Driving from the South of France into Spain

Late night pizza run into town

Late night pizza run into town

Canal running into Carcassonne

Canal running into Carcassonne

Relaxing in the courtyard of the winery/cottage

Relaxing in the courtyard of the winery/cottage

With my parents we flew into Pisa, Italy, spent an overnight in Lucca, spent a day in Florence, and then bounced around Umbria for a few days before taking a fairly wild drive through the countryside to end up back in Pisa.

Walking along the outer wall of Lucca

Walking along the outer wall of Lucca – each side is planted with a different variety of tree

The Duomo in Florence

The Duomo in Florence

Donut, hot from the fryer, filled with custard and rolled in sugar - dangerously addictive

Donut, hot from the fryer, filled with custard and rolled in sugar – dangerously addictive

The sun did come out briefly

The sun did come out briefly

Hidden courtyards and lots of stairs in Assisi

Hidden courtyards and lots of stairs in Assisi

View from the lawn of St Francis of Assisi's cathedral

View from the lawn of St Francis of Assisi’s basilica

Basilica of St Francis of Assisi

Basilica of St Francis of Assisi

Cloudy but still incredibly beautiful

Cloudy but still incredibly beautiful

Oh yeah, and the leaning tower of Pisa was taken over by protestors

Oh yeah, and the leaning tower of Pisa was taken over by protestors who lit flares and threw banners over the edge

My favourite memories for both trips (apart from spending time with our families) are fairly food focused.  While in Umbria we ate at a tiny trattoria that appeared to make its hours up as it went but served really flavourful and well paired foods.  While in Carcassonne we visited the local market.  I could’ve spent hours just exploring the different produce and pastries, let alone watching the crowds of people doing their weekly shop.

All in both trips were lovely and a great opportunity to spend time with both our parents.

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Bologna & Near Venice

After spending a day in beautiful (but hyper-touristy) Venice, we took the expert advice of our hotel’s concierge, hired a car, and took off to a “real” Italian city: Bologna.  Bologna is Italy’s 7th largest city and sits at a gateway between the picturesque (but poor) South, and the industrialized North.  It’s also known for its cuisine, breaddy pastas and of course the sauce Bolognese.

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We hired a Fiat Panda for the day at a cost of GBP22 (about C$35).  It is one of my favorite rental cars so far, with a crisp shifter and frugal petrol engine.  The trip to Bologna is 160km, and including our detours we ended up driving about 450km in the day.  While petrol is expensive, the Panda only used EUR30 in gas for the whole trip.

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We saw these hills from the autostrada, and stopped to take a look.

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Bologna was a bit gritty.

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Now-dry canals in the city centre

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Bologna is home to the world’s 3rd oldest university, and Europe’s second largest preserved city centre.  Much of the city’s sidewalks were covered arcades, providing shelter from the elements.  During our visit in early March the temperature was about 16c.

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Covered sidewalk arcade, to the left.

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One of Bologna’s symbols is this the Two Towers, actually a cluster of medieval towers scattered throughout the old part of the city.  The big one is twice as tall as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  And, for EUR3, you can climb it:

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In the main town square, we could hear music from a funeral service for an Italian musician (we found out later, Lucio Dalla).  You can see the square is packed with thousands of people wearing black.

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All in all, 498 stairs!

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On the way back, we checked in at the small city of Ravenna on the Adriatic coast, just south of Venice

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Venice

Well, British Airways had a seat sale and we took the plunge – a long weekend in Venice, while staying at the Hilton, just like a rock stars!  The reason it was all possible?  No one visits Venice in the wintertime, so we had the city to ourselves.  The hotel we stayed at, the Hilton Garden Inn, was fantastic: brand new rooms, helpful concierge, and a 7 minute shuttle onto the island. At EUR75 a night in a city known for high room rates, this was one of the best hotel values I’ve had in Europe.

Venice is in Northern Italy on the Adriatic Sea.  Hollywood’s Italy is usually the south – sun drenched beaches, dusty sand, olive trees.  Northern Italy is a bit different; while it’s hot in the summer winters can be proper cold.  Once home to a population of 200,000, tourists are slowly taking the island over; only 60,000 permanent residents remain on Venice itself.  We grabbed our Rick Steves Italy book and went nuts:

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The world famous Rialto bridge.

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To combat rising tides, much of the island has been built up around the buildings.  This makes for some low ceilings.

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Tasty pastries by the canal.

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The blue-green water is saltwater from the surrounding lagoon.

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A gondola ride is a pricey proposition – EUR100 by day, and more by night.  The cheap trick is to choose a Traghetto, which goes from one side of the Grand Cana and back.  The 40 yard, 3 minute journey costs just half a Euro!

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The island of Murano,home to Murano glass.

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A Murano glass…glass.

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These little guys were EUR5 each.

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It was easy to capture Venice on our DSLR.  Point, shoot, everything looked fantastic.

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Super ornate column outside the Doge’s (Duke’s) Palace.

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The famous Bridge of Signs, leading from the courthouse (left) into the prison (right)

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Plaza San Marco – St Mark’s Square.  Trading houses on the left, and the Basilica straight ahead.

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Jamie’s Recipe Yearbook and an Escape to Venice

Mr416expat and I had the chance to escape to Venice last weekend.  I’m not going to lie, it was an amazing opportunity.  Mr416expat found a last minute deal on the British Airways website and suddenly we were off for 3 nights in Venice.  This was our first trip to Italy and the country absolutely blew me away.  I’ll let Mr416expat post the pictures from the trip – I know he’s dying to get on the laptop to do some final edits!  I’ll give you a hint though – there are a lot of boats.

While killing time at Gatwick Airport, I stumbled upon the 2011-2012 version of Jamie’s Recipe Yearbook.  I purchased last years version and really enjoyed it as a mini recipe book.

The flight to Venice (1hour and 40 minutes) offered me a chance to really sink my teeth into the recipes.  On arriving back in London I was feeling particularly inspired to cook.  Something about eating parma ham in tiny bread rolls while drinking a delicious glass of 1.50 euro wine reminded me all about why I love cooking.  So here it goes, the first recipe I’ve cooked out of the 2011-2012 Recipe Yearbook with my own Italian twist:

Chicken - it always starts with chicken - note: I got 8 chicken breasts for 9GBP - that's pretty good!

Bash the chicken - in our rather appliance/kitchen gadget limited space that means use a frying pan but I think that's ok

Chicken layered with sage leaves and pancetta has entered the fry pan

dance tiny cherry tomatoes, dance!

dinner - Chicken Saltimbocca served with fresh salad greens and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar

Chicken Saltimbocca – Adapted from Jamie’s Recipe Yearbook 2011-2012

2 chicken breasts
a handful of sage leaves
4 slices of pancetta
1 good glug of olive oil
1 tbsp butter
2 handfuls of cherry tomatoes
salt and pepper

Place a long piece of parchment paper on the counter.  Place the chicken breasts on the parchment paper and fold the paper over so that the chicken is sandwiched between the parchment paper.  Using a meat hammer (or a frying pan) smash the chicken until it is of an even thickness (1-2cm).  Laying the sage leaves on top of the chicken, followed by the slices of pancetta.  Season with salt and pepper.

Melt the butter and olive oil in a frying pan over medium to medium-high heat.  When the butter and oil have combined and your pan is hot, add the chicken (sage and pancetta facing up).  Cook for about 2 or 3 minutes, then flip the chicken (with sage and pancetta over).  At this point add the cherry tomatoes, shaking the pan so the tomatoes fall in between the chicken.  The cherry tomatoes will burst and the juices will create a flavourful sauce.  Cook until the chicken is done (roughly 2-3 minutes after your flipped it).

Serve with salad greens drizzled with balsamic vinegar.

Anniversary in Amsterdam

Finally, after nearly 2 years on this soggy little island, we were able to ride the rails 4 hours to Amsterdam.  The ride via Eurostar (with a stop in Belgium) costs about GBP130 and, given it goes from city-centre in London to city-centre in Amsterdam, is about as easy as intercontinental travel can get.

We took a 3-day long weekend, and given the small size of the city (about 1 million people with a famously compact pedestrian-friendly core), it was just enough time.  Hotels are a touch expensive (not much choice under EUR100) but the beer was cheap and the food was great!

We stayed in the Jordann, a gentrified neighbourhood just outside the old central area.  In Amsterdam the old centre is the capital of vice (reminded me a but of Queen & Bathurst) but the Jordann is more grown-up, less pott-y, more quiet, and filled with gorgeous shops and cafes.

We’ll be back.

Paris in the the Spring

We went to Paris again last weekend, and finally made it ot the Louvre.  It’s the world’s largest museum, with a cracking 1989-era glass-pyramid addition designed by IM Pei.  Mr. Pei also left his mark on Toronto – the same guy who designed Commerce Court West, another building which combines the very new with the very old.

More time was spent this time visiting cooler, hipper, fannypack-free Paris locales.  Highlights include hipster cafe Chez Prune , Les Enfants Rouges market (in city centre with a food focus) and Marche aux Puces de la Porte de Vanves (vintage flea market in an outer borough).

Making Lemonade out of Lemons 2

While stuck in Salema (see Making Lemonade out of Lemons 1) Jorn’s wife was quite upset to hear of our bad luck, and on getting to her house to pick up keys to our apartment, insisted on taking us for a hike the next day.

My sisters and I are active.  We work out regularly and consider ourselves fairly healthy.  Jorn’s wife, goes for 3 walks per day, two hour long walks, and one 2-3 hour walk.  Every day.  We may not have been adequately prepared for the hike that followed.  Regardless, it was an amazing hike and we saw herbs and beautiful plants growing wild everywhere we looked.

Wild Thyme

Rosemary - this stuff was everywhere and so fragrant!

Almond Trees

Fennel

Fig Tree

Wild Lavender

Walking down to Figueira Beach

Doesn't that rock formation remind you of pull-apart bread?

Figueira