Sunday, November 06, 2011

Rioja, Spain

Following our amazing time in San Seb and along the coast, it was time to go inland, to conquer the Rioja wine region. Thankfully for us, August was pretty mild this year in the region, which made a tolerable excursion. I think it was 95 during the day we were there. Rioja is about 90 minutes from Bilbao down a scenic highway that slices and dices the mountains off the coast, which gradually subdues to beautiful rolling hills with lots of grapes! We couldn't resist to pull over and check out the look, feel and taste of the grapes.

We choose our afternoon wine tour to the town of Laguardia, a historic 13th century walled village that is in the heart of the region. Within the caves underneath the walled hill town is the resting spot of the terrific Bodega El Fabulista wines. We took an informative tour of the caves and did a tasting in a great spot in the caves. See below. The Bodega does their mashing the traditional method, by stomping the grapes. Don't look for the wine in your local liquor store, unless you live in La Rioja of course.

It was Monique and Kelly's first cellar wine tasting, and a memorable one at that.
We then took the scenic route to our hotel for the night, Viura, which is an ultra-modern located in an old village near Laguardia. We choose to eat at the restaurant, with pretty good food and amazing wine that was only like $15 for a bottle of amazing wine.
The next morning we went to do the a tour at this crazy looking winery, exactly the opposite of the one on the previous day. We unfortunately were a little late and locked out:-( We at least we got to check out the cool building!
Following the attempted tour, we made our way back up to the coast, closer to Bilbao where we flew out of. We decided to bypass seeing Bilbao and instead went to Bermeo, a coastal village that has a picturesque harbor.
We had a quick lunch and then headed over to one of the most beautiful beaches along the coastline. We were without question the only non-locals as it is hard to get to. You can see how unspoiled it is. 

All in all, San Sebastian is a great destination, with great food, wine, beaches, history and a laid back untouristy vibe. 

Sunday, October 02, 2011

San Sebastian and Rioja, Spain

The second to last destination on our list that we compiled almost four years ago has finally been conquered; or perhaps has conquered us???...
San sebastian is not the easiest place to get to, which was also the case for us, taking an early flight to France, accepting a ride to the train station from a nice Parisian man (saved us 3 hours as the trains aren't frequent) hopping a train from Biarritz, changing at the border to a narrow gauge carriage and chugging along to San Sebastian. But let me say once you get to the beautiful crescent shaped beach (and get to your hotel:), all frustration dissolves into the blue green waters of the hot-lantic.
Monique and Kelly are with us for the adventure, not only their first time to San Sebastian (like us), but their first time to Spain (and France)! I think it would be fair to say we made the right decision in choosing our destination. San Sebastian is amazing collection of beautiful landscape, amazing beaches and chilled out weather, combined with perhaps the best foodie scene in the world, where you can eat your way through as many Pintxos as your can handle.
After laying on the beach for a handful of hours and walking along the pleasantly un-touristy boardwalk, we made our first foray into the San Seb old town, which must have over 100 Pintxos (Basque term for tapas) bars, all in business with the objective to provide locals and foodies the some of the best food in the world (they'd be run out of business if they didn't).

We eased into the scene on our first night, going to Bodegon Alijahandro on Fermin Calbeton. It was the perfect way to ease into the Pintxos scene, with a 5 course set menu paired with wine, left little decision making up to the consumers, which was fine with us as it was amazing. The squid risotto in its own ink was delicious! The price is right too at EUR35 for the menu, and another EUR12 for the 5 glasses of vino.
Walking back from the old town to the hotel each night was a great way to digest before going home; beautiful views too as things quiet down quite a bit at night (aside of the beach club about 50 metres down from our hotel (Niza - which was great by the way - see the view from our balcony in the first pic!!).
The following morning we get a decently early start (10am) and ascended the Monte Igeldo Mendia on an old rickety funicular; the first for the elder generation and only third or forth for us. Always an entertaining ride!
Once you get to the top, you realise why they built the funicular in the first place. AMAZING VIEWS! This is where you see all the tourist ad pics of the city.
On the top of the "mountain" is a cute antique amusement part that has a roller coaster, bumper boats, a mini train, haunted house, and of course, a mini flume ride, if only you got to go down the mountain on it! We opted for the flume ride which sends you hanging on the side of the mountain almost spilling out to sea.
The beach below is beautiful, you can rent these cute little cabanas for EUR15 a day. Keeps you protected from the scorching heat that we had for the first 36 hours.  
The following night was our first tapas crawl. We went to 4-5 places and had some great food and icy cold beer! We went to Dakara, La Vina, Cepa and finally, Zuruko, which was the most impressive of the 10-15 Pinxos spots we hit up in 2 nights!
The baby eels at Zuruko, a first for Erin and I!!!
I was able to conquer my fears and finally got retribution on the Sea Urchins after my sting in Thailand!!
After the first round of Pintxos, we caught the beautiful sunset in the harbor, which is about as good as they get! I found a bottle of wine that Erin, Jenna, Jamie and I had last summer at Brindisa in London, so naturally, we shared it on the beach after all the food before a good night sleep!

The next morning we busted out of town with our rental car and headed down some great coastal towns, stopping first at Getaria where we were a little too early to eat an an amazing looking fish spot, but not too late for the independence (Basque) parade in Zumaia, which featured amazing character with all its locals, young and old, dressed up in traditional outfits, and the men of the parade dressed in some funky bells! We grabbed some lunch from the street vendors, washed down by some local sour cider.
After Zumaia, it was further down the coast, and further away from tourists (I don't think there were any in Zumaia - but for good measure we went on) to Mutriku, which is a colorful, 3-dimensional fishing village that we wandered around for 30 minutes before returning to San Sebastian for another night of amazing Pintxos.
We went to some more great spots that night, which included La Cucharia, Txepetxa, Goiz Argi, and one that is just off Plaza de la Constitucion on Inigo. I can't remember the name but it was fabulous. You choose what you want raw, then they send it to the back where the cooks turn it to perfection! Oh yeah, go to La Vina for cheesecake...without question the best any of us ever had.
Our fun in San Sebastian came to an end the following morning. What an amazing city! But what is a trip to the Basque country without tasting the wines of the Rioja first!!??!!

Monday, September 12, 2011

My day off in Malta

When you ever have a day off in Malta and would ask locals were to go, and where to go early for the most amazing beach on the islands, I bet the majority would say Comino. Note this day off was ages ago given how far behind I am on the blog.

Erin was finally able to visit me and we took a morning off from the crazy work schedule and on the Saturday morning we got up and had the usual nice breakfast at the Hilton Malta before taking the 45 minute bus to Cirkewwaa and then a 15 minute ferry on United Comino Ferries (no reservation needed) at the port for €10 return. The first ferry out is at 9am and they go until 6pm. We were some of the first people dropped off at the beach and while you think you are in peaceful bliss in the beautiful waters, come noon the place is crawling with day-trippers on organised tours from Villetta.
We have been to some of the best beaches in the mediterranean that include Cala Goloritze in Sardinia, Scopello in Sicily, the beaches of Sifnos and Folegandros, the lava rock beaches of Santorini and even those in Cannes and Cassis. I think only Goloritze near Cala Gonone on the East Coast of Sicily compares in terms of amazing blue azur waters.

We got some great lounge chairs on the rocks at the edge of the water and lounged in the warm, pristine waters that have amazing white sands for about 2.5 hours until the crowds began to offset the beautiful scenery and we decided to walk around the island.
While we were walking around the island away from the crowds, we found some kids cliff jumping so of course I had to have a go at it!! This actually looks at lot like a photo Erin took of me at Cala Goloritze, see link above.
Following Comino we got a local boat driver to take us to Gozo for a look at the island before heading back to St. Julians. I definitely DO NOT advise to try and do both of these sites in one day and I think the Maltese would think you were crazy too. However, being total power tourists, we went for it, taking the boat to the Gozo ferry port and a bus to Victoria, the capital a ways inland for a nice lunch in the main square.
Following lunch we had a little tour of the citadel and around its walls. It is perched on the highest part of the island and has a commanding view with 360 degree walls that have seen many many years.
After the citadel we jumped on another bus to the famous beach in Gozo only to be stumped by the San Lorenzo village festa, which prohibited the bus from heading any further to Dwerja Bay. The bus had to make a percarious U turn at the foot of the village that took about 12 minutes to inch forward and back like the golf cart in the hallway in Austin Powers.
We regretably turned around and grabbed the Ferry back to Malta, catching some last cool water at the Beach in front of the Hilton before having a nice dinner at Zeri's, my go-to restaurant in my time in Malta. For the record, I have now spent 50 nights in Malta since the second week of May.....too many.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Theo takes London

Theo recently paid his aunt and uncle a visit in London town to experience first hand who and what were behind all those gmail video chats and if they lived in the virtual world or a real world. While many things about the last 4 years have been unbelievable, we are indeed real, and little Theo was in for a real treat!
Theo was joined by Alissa and Jeremy and also Ma Dukes, making her first visit to see us in London and second overall. We were a little nervous at first as it was going to be the whole crew plus Erin and I in our little 500 ft flat, but thankfully Sam and Jess were kind enough to let us crash down the street while they were back in the US.
As usual, Theo was a perfect gentlemen and little charmer, being a great trooper while hitting the pavement and taking in everything with a curious enthusiasm. We went to Notting Hill, Holland Park, along the river and around town.
During the week I had to skip out to Malta and Erin to Malmesbury so the fam went to Paris for three nights and had a great time there as well. Theo got his first passport stamp about 19 years before I got mine.
One of the best moments captured was Theo in the red phone booth that most visitors take advantage of when visiting us in Holland Park.

Of the weekend, the best moments were at our flat, watching him run around and explore. The most interesting thing for him was without question the washing machine. In London they are front loading with a plexi-glass cover so he was able to witness the magic of clothes washing and was truely impressed.

It was really great to have everyone visit and to show them the other side of the rabbit hole!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Hi Ho Bauer take 7 - Belgian Beer Tour - Part II, Brugge

Following our epic night of beer heaven in Antwerp, we hopped on the train to Bruges, which is about 2 hours from Antwerp, with a change in Ghent. A beautiful day in Bruges greeted us as we checked into our hotel, which was only a 3 minute walk from the main square. We stayed at Hotel Cordoeanier, which is around a hundred euros and has a nice bar that has a nice selection of beers. The morning after I had to work and the hotel owner was kind enough to let me work in the bar. After I was done he served me a rare Struise beer, which was yummy. 

After we checked in we took advantage of the beautiful weather and took a boat tour of the canals. The 45 minute tour takes a good stab at getting a whistle stop tour of the city under the belt. You can get on the boat at a few different places around the city. 
After the canal tour, we realised we were off track and needed to hit up a couple bars. 'T Brugs Beertje was the first great pub to quench our thirst. We again had four great beers, this post was meant to list all the beers at all the bars we went to but it got misplaced somewhere in our flat and tossed, apologies for that as this would've been a great post to share the great beer we sampled.
We then headed along the canal to Auberghe Vlissinghe, which is said to be the oldest pub in Bruges, since 1515. The main room of the pub resembles what I picture an old guild hall with great wood paneling, a warm fireplace (when lit) and old wooden tables.
Oh yeah, and lots of great old paintings.
Following the bar it was back along the canals to dinner. I don't remember the name mostly because it isn't too memorable. Yet again we didn't get a chance to ascend the old tower to see the city, which would've been nice. However, walking the canals and sitting in the square is really all one needs to do in Bruges.
Of course it is important to take in the old square at sunset, a majestic sight. If you have a chance, spend the night here as most of the day tourists stay in Brussels or elsewhere and the city is much more serene and beautiful at night.
Once the girls went to bed, we went to the final bar of the night, De Garre. Again, down a little alley, the pub also oozes character and is a must visit in the old town, capping a great trip to Bruges! Will we be back.....stay tuned.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Belgian Beer Tour - Part III, Westvleteren, St. Bernardus (B&B), Struise

"Life is a pilgrimage. The wise man does not rest by the roadside inns. He marches direct to the illimitable domain of eternal bliss, his ultimate destination"
 - Swami Sivananda                     
My modification to the Buddhist quote is the following:
"Life is a pilgrimage. The wise man does not rest by the roadside inns. He marches direct to the (abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren), his ultimate destination"
                                                                               - Lou
"What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us."
- Henry David Thoreau

Bow Wow's modification to Mr. Thoreau would be the following:
"What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within that field of delicious hops."
                                                                                  - Dr. Bauer
The time has arrived; the off-track portion of our program where we pave new paths to new, rare beers. Yes its true, where we are going, not even Rick Steves could recommend a local restaurant.
Following our time in Bruges, we picked up our rental car, taking a quick hour drive to West Flanders, also home to some of the best breweries in the world, including, but surely not limited to De Dolle, De Struise BrouwersWestvleteren and St. Bernardus. We were able to visit the last three and even stay at the last one on our excursion (entrance to St. Bernie's B&B pictured above).

We had agreed to meet Jacky at 3pm and as we had made it to the area much quicker than we expected, we stopped in Oostvleteren (just east of Westvleteren, naturally), to pay homage to De Struise Brouwers, whose beers I (ignorantly) knew little about before researching for this trip. Their secret is not safe with me!

The Brewery is an old schoolhouse and while Carlo, one of the owners of the brewery, wasn't around, the office manager was friendly and able to sell us a few beers to try out (p.s. the beer is awesome - not sure how readily available it is in the US).

Following this, we had an hour to go 10 km and between St. Bernardus and Struise was St. Sixtus. I will explain the story more below, but Saint Sixtus thankfully have opened a brewery cafe in the last several years that allows Pilgrim's to stop and sample the best rated beer in the world, Westvleteren 12.

Following the second pitstop we made it to the St. Bernardus B&B, which if not connected to the brewery would still be amazing as the bedrooms and common rooms are very carefully done. Debatably the best feature of the house however, is that guests have free reign to two fridges stocked with Bernie's, which we of course made quick use of (but not quick work of - Belgian's are strong)! Dat's a lotta Tripel's Bernie!
Following our welcome drink to wait out the rain, we grabbed the bikes that guests can use and biked to Watou, the nearby village, for dinner. Erin's bike didn't last long so she got a Dutch taxi ride (as I just now coined).

We arrived in Watou to witness a local version of lawnbowling, patanques or bocce ball. This variation involves rolling these rubber disks down the street. I gathered the objective is the same where you have to get closest to the little ball tossed first.
Paterstafel, our restaurant for the evening, was just opposite the game in the village square. Bauer and I went for steak for two marinated in a sauce whose primary ingredient was the Prior 8.
Following dinner, we meandered our way back along Trappistweg, taking the first left after the brewery. We stayed up for a few games of cards and drank a Bernie in its proper glass, emulating the monks who started the brewery. The history of the brewery and cheese production plant is found here and here. You can read that the beers of Westvleteren used to be brewed here and in 1992 when the Trappist beers all moved production to within the Monasteries, the beer's name was changed to St. Bernardus, after the Refuge established there following the anti clergy movement in France (during the French Revolution). Its good to see I have more hair and less belly than the Saint - for now :-)
The following morning after breakfast, the other unique feature of the B&B was unveiled. In the laundry room connected to the B&B kitchen was a door...but not just any door, a door leading directly to the bottling facility of the brewery, beginning the brewery!! TOTALLY COOL!!!
Jacky gave us a nice tour of the facility, which was during the full production process (only the second time I had a tour during production - Summit). I almost got plucked by a forklift when I was posing for a pic!
Following the tour, we took another bike ride through the country and its fields of hops, sadly returning the bikes to leave. We all agreed another night on Trappistenweg would have been wonderful.

We had a couple hours before our beer date with the monks, so we went to Ieper or Ypres. A beautiful town was subject massive destruction during world war one. The church was the only building resembling more than a pile of rubble, but following the war, nearly the entire town was rebuilt to its pre-war character.
The time had arrived, just an hour before our scheduled pick up and time for another lunch at the Westvleteren cafe In De Vrede, and two more 12's for me along with some of the Monk's famous cheese.
Upon leaving the cafe, we headed to the Monastery gates to see where and how we get our beer. Thankfully I have dealt with my fair share of Monk's at Saint John's, so this guy and I seemed to click. I have a suspicion he likes beer too. The length's we go to get our beer!
The background behind St. Sixtus and getting the highly rated and commercially untouchable beers of Westvletern is that you need to be able to interpret their beer schedule, you need luck to get through on the phone and you need to be able to visit Belgium the week after you reserve. As I mentioned, the beer is not available commercially anywhere except the cafe (legally), so you have to call the reservation line if you want to get beer. I called the reservation line, not knowing the pick up dates on the website correspond with the call in dates listed on the call in column (generally a week or so earlier). I was able to get through to reserve a case of the Westy 12s, but had to then retract as I was not going to be there during the schedule pick up dates (only two days available for pick up of this batch - and you though the soup Nazi was strict;-). Knowing that the call in dates correspond with the pick up dates, I was luckily able to get through the following week and reserved a crate of Westy 8's, not a bad consolation.
The pick up area, attached to the monastery, is ran by one of the monks. It is exactly like a bank drive through, except you leave with beer instead of a deposit slip. We were also lucky as they were selling mixed three packs for €8 each that allowed a sixer for each passenger in the car. Naturally we maxed out our order and ended up with two cases of Westies! We actually had two crates lined up for our reservation, but it was too much to haul back on the train through the chunnel.
What an amazing and truly unique beer experience that we will all never forget. And to top it off, the beer was as good as advertised, one of the best!

Now how do we get it back to the US?????