Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Best and Worst Cuisines Abroad

Throughout my travels, I've tasted some truly incredible dishes... and some pretty terrible ones as well. There've been countries that have stood out as gastronomic superstars, and others that have flopped horribly. From the divine to the downright disgusting, here's what I've found to be the most impressive and disappointing cuisines abroad:

Best Cuisine: Greece

How could I not choose Greek food as my favorite international cuisine? No other country has so effortlessly seduced my taste buds. Between the fresh vegetables, rich feta, mouthwatering dolmades and flavorful tzatziki, Greece exemplifies foodie heaven.

Cretan salad with mizithra cheese
Baked eggplant at Roka - my favorite restaurant in Santorini
Read more about my favorite gluten free Greek dishes here!

Second Runner Up: Mexico

Do I feel a little guilty for not saying Spain? Maybe. But I mean... Mexican food.

The best meal I've ever had was at a roadside taco stand in Ensenada in 2007. Every year back in junior high and high school I went on volunteer trips to Mexico with my church - so on every trip, we got to try the amazing street food. The tacos al pastor I had at this particular stand blew my taste buds out of the water. Needless to say, it redefined what real  Mexican food should taste like... and I've been addicted ever since. 

The only photo I took of "the best meal I've ever had"... foodie blasphemy. Judge if you must.


Worst Cuisine: The UK

I'm hoping this doesn't get me any hate mail. So let it be known: I absolutely love the UK. I would go back to London and Edinburgh in a heartbeat. 

That said, some of the most abominable meals I've tried abroad were in the UK. Haggis, deep fried Mars bars, bangers and mash, English breakfasts, mystery meat pub food... the list goes on. I know that there are some really great modern/international/fusion options to be found, but if we're specifically talking about "traditional" dishes, then everything I tried made my stomach churn.

Savoring the only good meal I had in Scotland at the Elephant House Café. My enjoyment of this meal may or may not have been heavily influenced by the fact that JK Rowling wrote parts of Harry Potter here.

In other words, pub food is not my jam. Coffee > tea. And who in their right mind eats beans and tomatoes for breakfast?!?

Dear lovely readers in the UK, please don't hate me. And if you passionately disagree with me, then I will gladly take your recommendations for the next time I visit! I'm willing to be proven wrong!

Second Runner Up: Germany

Unless beer is a food group, the gastronomy of Germany did nothing to impress me. (But who am I kidding, I didn't even get to try the beer in Germany because I couldn't find any gluten free options. So I'm just trusting everyone else who says that the beer is actually good there.) 

The sausages, sauerkraut, cold cuts and salads I tried were bland, uninspiring and often less-than-appetizing. I've never been less enthused about trying the local grub. While I truly adored Bavaria, I found German food to be nothing special.


What are your favorite and least favorite cuisines you've tried abroad? 
Is there a country whose gastronomy stands out as the best or the worst?


Welcome to this week's Travel Tuesday Linkup with A Compass Rose!

Every week BonnieCynthiaYalanda and I will choose one post from the previous week's linkup to be featured. Make sure to check out their blogs to see who they chose!
This week I am featuring Sara of A Different Piece of Sky and her post on Gouda, The Netherlands. As an avid cheeseaholic, I was sold on visiting Gouda almost immediately upon reading her post! Sara's recap has undoubtedly inspired me to take a day trip to this darling town next time I visit Amsterdam.

Ready to link up?

1. Share a post about travel! 

2. Grab the lovely button below. If you run into any trouble, just make sure to mention BonnieCynthiaYalanda or me in a link.

3. Linkup goes live every Tuesday at 0800 GMT. Make sure to comment here, on the co-hosts blogs, and visit around!

Tips:

1. Please only one linked up post per blogger. Save other posts for future linkups!

2. The last Tuesday of the month will be a themed prompt if you want to join in!

3. Hop around and meet new travel loving bloggers! Check back to visit some of the newer travel posts! 


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Medieval Charm in Ávila


Spain just makes you feel a certain way. There's something particularly magical about the small towns that transport you back in time to a different era. In the quaint village of Ávila in Castilla y León, this sense of old world enchantment still holds strong.


Just an hour and a half outside of Madrid, this charming UNESCO World Heritage Site is most famous for its ancient medieval walls surrounding the town, also known as La Muralla de Ávila. From atop these walls you can admire spectacular views of the colorful town below, as well as the rolling hills of the Spanish countryside in the distance. 

Though the sights to see are limited, the old-fashioned squares and quiet alleys nestled within the fairytale-esque walls are perfect for wandering aimlessly. With nuns ambling down the street and abuelos  leisurely chatting in picturesque plazas, Ávila brings small town charm to a whole new level.


Since Ávila is well known for their beef, one of their most popular traditional dishes includes chuletón de Ávila - otherwise known as juicy T-bone steak. Strolling through Ávila you will also find many shops selling yemas de Santa Teresa, the town's famed dessert comprised of egg yolk, syrup and lemon juice. Just the right combination of savory and sweet, these treats were perfect to snack on as we explored the deserted streets during siesta  time.

La Muralla de Ávila

My Ávila Picks:
Favorite Restaurant: Soul Kitchen
Best Views: From atop the Muralla
Can't Miss Sights: The Muralla, the cathedral and Plaza de la Victoria
Must-Try Dishes: Chuletón and yemas
Best Thing to Do: Wander aimlessly!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

One Year Expatversary

3 continents | 12 countries | 35 cities | 1 lifelong love affair with Spain


As hard as it is to believe, today marks 12 full months of living as an expat in Madrid.

*Technically speaking, I moved to Madrid on September 15th, 2013 - but I don't count the two months I lived at home in Seattle this past summer. 

Not only is it hard to fathom how fast the time has passed, but it's also surreal to look back on how quickly I built a life here in Spain. At this point, Madrid genuinely feels like home.


Here in Spain, I've developed what I never thought I would: roots.

I have an apartment that feels like home. A job that I look forward to going to everyday. A solid community that I can fall back on, filled with friends who are always up for spontaneous adventures and never fail to make me laugh. I know the streets like the back of my hand, and I can order off a menu without needing to double check my Spanish dictionary first.

I've developed a deeper appreciation and respect for the culture, and I finally have a better command of the language. (Though let's be real, that'll always be a work in progress.) I've even surprised myself by adopting curious Spanish customs, like always  wearing slippers inside the house, never eating lunch before 2 pm, sleeping in the middle of the day, and never leaving the house with wet hair and/or flip flops.

Coming home to this colorful plaza makes living in Madrid all the more enchanting.

The weirdest part is how natural it all feels now. Through the trials and tribulations of adjusting to a new country, a new culture and essentially a new life, I've reached a point where I finally feel settled. The culture shock and homesickness have subsided, and as each day passes I feel more and more integrated. 


That's not to say that I don't ever have moments that make me feel like a total foreigner, or never witness events that make me think "What is the DEAL with this place?!?" There are still plenty of frustrating moments (most of them dealing with Spanish bureaucracy - I'm looking at you, Aluche) and things that make my blood boil (ahem, racism and machismo...), but I've learned to not let the negatives outweigh the positives. As often as I just have to shake my head and think, "Oh, Spain...",  at the end of the day I still love living here - nonsensical Spanish quirks and all.


Moving to Spain has required me to challenge myself and face my biggest fears head on, and because of that I've grown tremendously this past year. It's pretty damn scary to move to a new country where you don't know anybody, build a new community from scratch, submit yourself to the misadventures of love and dating, and test out a new career for the first time - all while trying to communicate in a foreign language. (I guess I can't speak for everybody, but at least it was really, really  terrifying for me.) But I survived to tell the tale!

All that said, moving abroad is undoubtedly the best thing I could have done for myself, and I hope to continue to grow as an expat this next year (or maybe even in future years...?) to come.


We make a good team, Madrid. Here's to many more adventures together!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Paris Gives Me Heart Sparkles

You know how everybody sobs uncontrollably during the first 15 minutes of the movie "Up" or the ending of "Titanic"? Well, that also happens to me when I watch the opening scene of "Midnight in Paris".

My name is Courtney, and I am a Francophile.

This past Friday morning on my way to Istanbul, I had a layover in Paris. I don't usually get too excited about layovers, especially when I'm half asleep thanks to my 4 am wakeup call, but upon flying over the City of Light I couldn't help but feel some pretty intense heart sparkles. (You know, like butterflies in your stomach, but sparkles in your heart.)

As we soared over the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur, I felt the slightest hint of temptation to ditch my connecting flight to Turkey and spend the weekend traipsing through the first city I ever loved. (But that obviously would have been a terrible idea, especially considering how amazing Istanbul was. I know better than to make any important decisions before two cups of coffee. But I digress.) 

Although I last visited Paris in September 2013, I fear that one year is just too long to stay away. With my face plastered to the airplane window and my eyes tearing up from joy, I realized that my soul desperately needs another trip to Paris. Stat.


Back in 2010 when I was studying abroad in the south of Spain, I took a spontaneous trip to Paris over Easter because I knew I would be a fool to fly all the way to Europe and not visit the city I had been fantasizing about since I was a little girl. Visiting France had been a dream and obsession of mine since I could remember; even my bedroom was decorated with a Parisian theme. Needless to say, the minute I set foot on the cobblestone streets of the Left Bank I fell head over heels in love. 

My infatuation with Paris intensified when I lived there during the summer of 2011. Technically  I was there to study Surrealist art and literature, but really I was there to bask in the magic of the city. While I learned my fair share about André Breton and his crew of offbeat surrealists, I spent most of my time eating macarons from Ladurée, frolicking through the Luxembourg Gardens, practicing my broken French in charming cafés, and wandering aimlessly through my favorite museums.


When I visited Paris last September for the third time, I wasn't too keen on spending my time powering through endless hours of sightseeing. Rather, I spent my days leisurely exploring, strolling through the rainy streets, snacking on macarons in the Tuileries, and channeling my inner Hemingway at sidewalk cafés. When I needed a change of pace from sipping wine at Les Deux Magots and indulging on delicious (but seriously overpriced) hot chocolate from Angelina's, I let myself get lost in a sea of impressionism at the Musée de l'Orangerie and the Musée d'Orsay for hours on end. 


As cliché as it may sound, sometimes I feel like my soul belongs in Paris. (So naturally, I live in Madrid...?) But being in Paris feels so right, as if the entire universe aligns as soon as I arrive. No other city has made me feel so effortlessly fulfilled by the surrounding art, culture and beauty. The joie de vivre is contagious there - and oh, how I miss it.


I suppose you could take a wild guess as to where I'll be planning my next trip...

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Gluten-Free Pinchos Crawling on Logroño's Calle Laurel


In the north of Spain, tapas are known as pinchos (or "pintxos") and are usually served atop a small piece of bread. As delicious as these appetizers may be, this tradition assuredly sounds like a Celiac's worst nightmare. Upon traveling to Logroño, La Rioja - the capital city of Spain's wine country - all I heard was talk of the famous pinchos on Calle Laurel

This notorious street in Logroño is lined with colorful tapas bars, each serving traditional Spanish pinchos to the wine-fueled masses. Instead of getting excited about this supposed foodie heaven, I felt an impending sense of doom. How would I survive in this perilous haven of bread?

But then I saw this little blue sign...

"Sin Gluten" means "gluten free" in Spanish. Hallelujah!

Much to my surprise, many of Calle Laurel's eateries plaster these cheery cerulean stickers across their windows and outdoor menus. Each bar that displays it usually has a handful of gluten-free pinchos available to order. I flitted from bar to bar in awe, hardly containing my excitement and disbelief (...and hunger).

With the help of my travel buddy Lauren's restaurant research and these God-sent "sin gluten" stickers, I commenced my weekend of gluten-free pinchos crawling on Calle Laurel. Here's what we found on our tapas treasure hunt:

Bar Donosti


What I Ordered: A tosta with goat cheese + peach marmalade + pine nuts on gluten-free bread, and another couple of GF tostas with goat cheese + tomato jam + almonds

The Verdict: So delicious I had to ask, "Are you sure this is gluten-free?!" 
Although it tasted too good to be true, this Celiac-friendly tosta was the best pincho I had all weekend. (Needless to say, we came back here every single day.) 


La Taberna del Laurel


What I Ordered: A steaming dish of patatas bravas

The Verdict: Fried and marinated to perfection, these crispy potatoes drizzled with "spicy" tomato sauce and aioli did not disappoint. Of the many servings of patatas bravas I've enjoyed this past year, this batch inched its way up to the top of my list. 

Ribera 


What I Ordered: A tosta with goat cheese, jamón and caramelized onions on gluten-free bread

The Verdict: The perfect combination of salty, savory and sweet. I seriously regret not taking photos of this delectable creation. (But hindsight is 20/20, especially if you were starving.)

Pata Negra


What I Ordered: A bocatita (mini-sandwich) with jamón and Galician Tetilla cheese on gluten-free bread

The Verdict: The gluten-free bread had a nice consistency and an authentic flavor. My taste buds delighted in the simple combination of salty cured ham and rich, creamy cheese. I wish I had gone to Pata Negra more than just once!



These next two restaurants aren't technically located on Logroño's famous Calle Laurel, but they're just a stone's throw away and still worth a mention.


On Travesía del Laurel:

Blanco y Negro


What I Ordered: A bocatita (mini-sandwich) with jamón and a roasted green pepper on gluten-free bread

The Verdict: The gluten-free bread was too chewy for my taste, and the tapa itself was a bit plain. Although, I could have just been bitter that the bartender told me I couldn't order a gluten-free version of their signature goat cheese, jamón and raspberry jam pincho. Bummer.


On Calle Portales:

La Tortilla del Albergue


What I Ordered: A classic slice of tortilla de patatas

The Verdict: I kid you not, this was one of the best tortillas I've had in my life. (For now I'm going to put it in the Top Five, but that's subject to change!) Comprised of just eggs, potatoes and olive oil, this simple dish is the epitome of comfort food. This pincho de tortilla had just the right consistency and flavor.

Because some of the bars get so crowded, many eateries have created "take out" windows for their pinchos. I obviously couldn't pass up a late night pincho de tortilla to-go!


Tips for Gluten-Free Pincho Hopping on Calle Laurel:

- If you're ordering something that doesn't specifically come with gluten-free bread, then ask for your dish "sin pan" (without bread). This is what I always had to do when ordering a slice of tortilla.

- If you're nervous because your Spanish is rusty, then print out a gluten-free restaurant card like this one to show to your waiters. However, most servers are in a rush, so if you just ask for a tapa "Sin Gluten" or say "Soy Celiaca", the restaurant will know how to take care of you.

- Follow the little blue "Sin Gluten" signs. They won't disappoint!


Not gluten-free but still want to experience all that Calle Laurel has to offer? Check out Lauren's post on Pincho Hopping in Logroño!


Do you have any food allergies? 
How do you survive them while traveling?

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Wine Tasting in Haro, La Rioja

Wine Tasting in Haro, La Rioja - the heart of Spanish wine country

Heaven is a place on earth, and that place is Haro, La Rioja. Last weekend we ventured to the heart of Spanish wine country in search of the perfect glass of fruity, smooth and subtle Rioja wine. Thankfully, after wine tasting in Haro - the wine capital of Rioja - we found just that. 

Wine Tasting in Haro, La Rioja - the heart of Spanish wine country

Recently, Spain has surpassed both France and Italy by becoming the world's largest wine producer. Of the many varietals that are cultivated and produced in Spain, Rioja wines are some of the most celebrated. 

But what's so special about Haro? Just a 30 minute bus ride from Logroño, Haro is more than just your average Spanish pueblo. Not only does this charming village boast enchanting plazas and picturesque cobblestone streets, but it's also brimming with bodegas, or wineries. 

In the 1870s, phylloxera aphids were attacking and destroying vineyards in Bordeaux, France. To save their wineries, French wine makers took their healthy vines to La Rioja, where the vines were then replanted along the railways in Haro. Once the French departed, the vines were left in the hands of the Spaniards. While many of the Spanish workers left, several decided to stay in Haro - including Rafael Lopez de Heredia, the founder of Viña Tondonia

Wine Tasting in Haro, La Rioja - the heart of Spanish wine country
Wine Tasting in Haro, La Rioja - the heart of Spanish wine country

Not only is Tondonia the oldest winery in Haro, but it's also the third oldest bodega in the region of La Rioja. Since 1877, family owned and operated Viña Tondonia has been producing quality wines using traditional methods. 

Among the myriad of wineries in Haro, Tondonia is the only one still using most of their original processing methods. In lieu of modern filtration systems and clarification processes, you can find Viña Tondonia utilizing bouquets of sticks, egg whites, and other archaic techniques. Time consuming as it may be, Tondonia's antiquated strategies ensure that each harvest results in high quality wine.

Wine Tasting in Haro, La Rioja - the heart of Spanish wine country
Wine Tasting in Haro, La Rioja - the heart of Spanish wine country

The tour of Tondonia's winery was absolutely enthralling, and seeing firsthand how their archaic methods are implemented was nothing less than fascinating. Our tour included a tasting of three of their perfectly aged wines: their 2005 white Viña Gravonia (which tasted surprisingly like a red), their 2003 Viña Bosconia, and my personal favorite - their 2002 Viña Tondonia Reserva. 

Wine Tasting in Haro, La Rioja - the heart of Spanish wine country
Wine Tasting in Haro, La Rioja - the heart of Spanish wine country

As if wine tasting in Haro weren't magical enough, we also spent part of our afternoon exploring the darling town. We wandered aimlessly through the plazas, we each enjoyed a café con leche  while we basked in the sun, and we got lost within the colorful, winding streets.

Wine Tasting in Haro, La Rioja - the heart of Spanish wine country
Wine Tasting in Haro, La Rioja - the heart of Spanish wine country

And what would a decadent day of wine tasting be without delicious food to accompany it? We prefaced our tasting at Tondonia with a savory lunch at Los Caños, a traditional pincho bar tucked away in a hidden plaza within the center of Haro. I admired the glutinous pinchos from afar while I devoured my huevos rotos con jamón. We enjoyed our meal alongside several well-rounded and velvety glasses of Martínez Lacuesta Campeador 2005 Reserva.

Wine Tasting in Haro, La Rioja - the heart of Spanish wine country
Wine Tasting in Haro, La Rioja - the heart of Spanish wine country
Wine Tasting in Haro, La Rioja - the heart of Spanish wine country
Cheers, Haro!


How to get to Haro from Logroño:

Take an Autobuses Jimenez bus from the Logroño bus station. 
Timetables can be found here. Bus tickets cost 3.70€ each way.
Viña Tondonia is a 20 minute walk from the bus station.


What's your favorite Spanish wine? 
Where is the best place you've been wine tasting?