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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween Ba hum bug

Okay so I have to tolerate the fake blood, grave stones, skeletons, and kitchy orange and black decorations but I draw the line at the begging for candy from perfect strangers. I guess I find no meaning in this holiday. So this year for Halloween as I do each year to avoid the hoards of ghouls and globins at my door, I head out to a fine dining establishment. This year as my father and Hippo are away, I took my mother to Lai Tah Ween at the Metropolitan Hotel. What a pleasant surprise...shark fin soup with real crabmeat (delicious!), sea cucumber clams on a bed of mushrooms, fresh bamboo shoots, carrots and sugar snaps and then shredded roast chicken seasoned with rock salt served with jellyfish.

The grimmest of this year was also marked by the sudden and tragic passing of two individuals: my dear Hippo's mother and my brother-in-law's father both in the past week and both had their funerals on the same day on difference sides of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, across the Pacific, my father celebrated his 68th birthday on the exact same day. Aware of these losses, I am sure that he views life as precious. A realization made more acute when death seems to strike so unexpectedly.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A small world without Facebook

Milton may be a growing town but it never ceases to amaze me how small the world really is. I recently had a new prenatal patient who I felt an immediate connection. She too thought that I looked familiar. She had delivered a previous child in the United States so I knew it could not have been a professional association. After a few minutes, I asked if she had gone to Western which she confirmed. Then I asked if she knew Ms. Foodie which she also confirmed. At last I have figured it out (as did she as well) that she rented a room in our (Ms. Foodie and I) three bedroom flat in Ms. Foodie's and her last year of studies at UWO. She had lived for a few years in the New England region before moving back to Canada and of all places, to Milton. I can't even imagine how many more such connections I would make if I ever signed up for Facebook.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Gaudied out

Gaudi's work is everywhere in Barcelona and no visit is complete without visiting at least one of these buildings. As it was Ms. Foodie's first visit, we started small and worked our way up to the enormous spectacle of the Sagrada Familia. First, the lampposts designed in the Plaza Reial, the Hans and Gretal houses and ceramic lizard at Park Guell, the whimsical roof of the Casa Mila and then the grand church itself.

We took the elevator up one of the towers, taking in spectacular sites of giant fruit topped spires before walking down these 257 steps. Both Ms. Foodie and I had to pause on occasion because of some slight vertigo and to enjoy the views from the windows in the towers.

Another memorable moment was the protest by Spaniards and Buddhist monks in Spain against the Juta regime in Burma. We did not learn that this was part of a co-ordinated world wide action organized by Amnesty International until we watched the news that evening.

The roof of the hypo style hall was studded with ceramic sculptures by Gaudi.

Gaudi's playful nature is apparent in these sentries (disguised chimney stacks) on the roof of the Casa Mila or La Pedrera (the quarry). When Gaudi first unveiled this design, some critics described the apartment as a collection of bland stones. Hence, the nickname of "the quarry" was adopted for this building.
One little know fact about Gaudi was his death. Gaudi was local celebrity in Barcelona at the time he was the architect of the Sagrada Familia. He lived and worked in the neighbour close to his beloved structure. On his way to work one day, he was struck by a tram a block away from the Sagrada Familia. He was taken to a hospital where he eventually died. His body lay unrecognized for three days!

After days of eating Spanish food, I had to make a break for an Asian meal in Barcelona. All that oil, heavy sauce, and deep fried foods can make this Asian girl hungry for a bowl of noodles. So it was off to a Japanese restaurant called Udon for a satisfying bowl of beef ramen.

It is good to be home now. Although the road home was started with a little bumpy ride. Ms. Foodie and I were supposed to take a direct train from our hotel to the airport. The train station was just in front of the Park Hotel. It was very fortunate that we decided to take the earlier train for what was suppose to a 30 minute ride took an hour and twenty minutes.

The train was suppose to proceed through 5 stops before reaching the airport, its terminus. After two stops, the train remained idle at the Barcelona Sants station for nearly 10 minutes. No announcements or train officials came by to tell the riders why. Then the lights were turned off and pretty much everyone alighted.

Through our fellow Spanish speaking riders, we learned that we were get on the next train, ride two stops and then alight at that station. Then a third train came along and took us to the airport. The final moment of frustration came when the lights and power temporarily went off on this third train at the moment of departure. Audible signs of relief were heard when the power came back on and when we finally arrived at the airport.
The gate for our plane changed and so the British Airways flight leg to Heathrow was delayed in its departure by 30 minutes. Thankfully, there was a time change and we had 2 hours layover in London. This we hoped would mean our bags stood a better chance of catching up with us. The irony was our flight from London to Toronto arrived 35 minutes early thanks to some powerful tail winds. By the time we cleared customs and picked up our bags (yes they made it on our flight), Mr. Hippo had just arrived at the terminal and we were off and away home by 6pm (the time the flight was suppose to arrive). Whew! Home safe and sound.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Barcelona and Cal Pep

Ms. Foodie and I had a short hour flight from Bilbao to Barcelona. Still tired from our early more departure, we decided to rest in the afternoon and then head off for a stroll in the old Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. We found many small courtyards such as this one. There were a number of cheese, pork and other food stores too. You have to admire a country where the pig is so venerated. Although this photograph recalls a William Holding novel, the love of the pig cannot be underestimated in Spain. From roast pig to Serrano Ham to Chorizo, the pig is everywhere. Perhaps only the chinese have more pork dishes.
That evening, we had easily the best meal in Spain at Cal Pep. We arrived at 9pm (early by Spanish time) and did not get a seat the bar until 10pm. The usual one hour wait is normal at this restaurant (and we were warned about this at many reviews of the place). However, we were served several glasses of white wine and beer while waiting. It also give us an opportunity to observe the dishes being served. This turned out to be valuable as there was no menu. There is one posted outside of the restaurant but none was given when we were seated. Dishes of baby octopus stewed with chicken peas, whole prawns grilled with heads on, calamari, lightly battered and deep fried artichoke hearts, baked white fish, stewed clams, floated by. Our heavenly meal was washed down with house white wine. To complete this culinary experience, I had Calvados and Ms. Foodie has some pistachio ice cream. Drunk, full and happy, we stumbled home which was thankfully less than 300m away.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Bilbao and green space.

After a 1hour flight midmorning flight we arrived in Bilbao. I still marvel that the internal flights of Spain are cheaper than the rail tickets.

Ms. Foodie was a big fan of Gehry's and so we headed off pretty sooner after our arrival to see the big giant twisted piece of metal.
Sadly, most of the museum's exhibits were under renovation at the time of visit and would open in about 2 weeks. Bad planning on our part. However, we did have fun with the existing installations.

I didn't think I would be impressed by Bilbao's Guggenheim. Very big and frankly industrial in nature, what was the fuss about? In fact, it has been 10 years since Frank Gehry's design was made real here on the banks of the Nervion. This controversial structure has been hailed as the first real wonder of the 21st century and vilified as a cheese factory or giant cauliflower.

Love it or hate it, the Guggenheim has transformed Bilbao itself. In its first year of construction, this city of 450 000 citizens was visited by over 700 000 peoples from around the world. I did think the structure ultimately was quite beautiful. It is very different from the rest of the architecture in Bilbao making it quite a spectacle. However, the industrial products involved in the contruction give a nod to Bilbao's past. As a bonus, Sir Norman Foster designed subway (the most modern in the world) has the trains gliding across rails embedded on a green lawn. Very cool!


Who knew that mazapan was so good? Rarely do I enjoy any sweet dessert but the mazapan snacks in Toledo are quite exciting...such that it has reshaped Ms. Foodie's opinion of them.
This photograph is of the remnants of muslim influence in Toledo. Part of the Mezquita de las Tornerias i.e. a modest mosque now part of a house of arts and craft display.
Toledo was once a centre of three cultures. Once because the Jews and Muslims were expelled after the events of the crusade for the latter and by a 1492 decree from Isabella and Ferdinand. However, the city still holds reminders of the influence of both groups as seen by the horseshoe archways of the Synagogue of Santa Marie La Blanca, evidence of classic Almohad architecture.

As Ms. Foodie and I wandered through the wet cobblestone paths of Toledo, we contemplated the demise of this once cosomopolitan city. From the remains of the Mosque (Mesquita) de las Tornerias to the horseshoe arches of the Synagogue de Santa Maria La Blanca, and to the tower of the Church of Santa Tombe, the moorish influence is seen everywhere.
When we returned to Madrid, Ms. Foodie suggested dinner at Casa Minga. Recommended by Frommers, Chow Hound and other foodie website sites, this restaurant had but a few things on the menus: cider, roast chicken and the grilled peppers with tuna. All were quite excellent but as Ms. Foodie rightly pointed out, the cider tasted a bit rustic (or in my words like a barnyard!).

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Old Spain, Segovia

It isn't hard to see how Segovia has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site. Ms. Foodie and I took a local train to this lovely little town in Castille region of Spain. We were greeted by a Roman Aqueduct which was built around the 1st century AD. Rising to about 28m, it is quite a site to behold as one enters the old city itself. The real surprise is the construction of the aqueduct was done with mortar.

Segovia is perched on a hill and the Cathedral of Nuestra Senora de la Ascuncion and of Frutos (no kidding) dominates the city's landscape. We wandered through the old Jewish quarter (which was abandoned when all the Jews were expelled from the city in 1492), Casa Del Sol (slaughter house), town square, several old family houses with their coat of arms emblazoned over the doorway, converted synagogues, medieval city walls and many gates.
Along the way, we did stop for some tasty tapas at Jose Maria bar, a favourite among the Segovians. After the pork mini-sandwiches and pickled sardines with onions (washed down with beer and red wine), it was off to the Alcazar.
The Alcazar of Segovia is believed to be one of the inspirations for Disney's castles. This is what the local tourist board would have you believe. Nevertheless the tall spires do evoke an air of fantasy. Whether Cinderella or Rapuzel inhabited these towers is subject to debate. The central crenallated tower of Juan II is definitely of Moorish influence though.
When we returned to Madrid, our long lost bags had arrived. To celebrate, Ms. Foodie and I went out for more tapas. In this case, the local house wine which was sweet accompanied with sweetbreads (or if you like pancreas fried up). Yum Yum. The Spanish do know how to live. Rising late, eating well and partying late into the night.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Bagless in Madrid

The day in Madrid started with the typical Spanish breakfast. Chocolate and Churros...basically salty fried dough you dip in chocolate. It wasn't even hot chocolate but the pure melted stuff.

This was the fuel we needed for our day's walking exploration of the Spanish capital. Walking through the old city from the El Rastro (old market) where we saw may strange foods including the below photograph of bull's testicles which is considered a delicacy to the Royal Palace. There was the Plaza Mayor (grand old civic centre), multiple churches, and even came along one of the homes of Cervantes too.

After a late lunch (everything is later in Madrid) at two o'clock, Ms. Foodie and I set off to take in some culture at the Prado. Las Meninas was a highlight along side other splendid works of Velasquez. There were plenty of Goyas (hopefully all real ones) and El Greco. For me the real surprise was Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights. The Flemish master must have doing some serious drugs when he painted that work.
After a brief rest at the hotel, and learning that our luggage was at Madrid Airport, we set off for delightful supper at 10pm (everything is later in Madrid) at Restaurant Platero. The host was very gracious and his recommended dessert of vanilla ice cream crusted with a sugar top and then flambe with Grappe was simply to die for. It confirms my opinion that Spain is a truely civilized country with Grappe flambe ice cream for dessert and chocolate and churros for breakfast.