Another Road Trip: Algarve to Berlin

Driving around Europe sounds sort of romantic, doesn’t it? When we bought our left hand drive car in the summer of 2012 we certainly thought so. Countless hours on French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, Polish and Czech roads later and we’re kind of over it. Still, travelling with a car has its plus points. It makes moving house a lot easier, for one. For two, it also means you get to visit a lot of interesting places on your way from here to there.

Road trip lagos

Our latest road trip took us from Lagos in The Algarve (Portugal), to Neukoelln in Berlin (Germany).

The road trip before that (Berlin to Valencia) took three weeks, but that was far too long. This time we settled on seven days. That seemed just right. Seven days, seven stops. We tried to keep each day’s driving down to about five hours, any longer than that and we get serious road fatigue.

I’ve summed up the highlights of our trip, although to be honest we didn’t  get a chance to see or do too much as we were mostly driving, listening to podcasts, and trying to avoid the temptation of junk food.

Lagos to Granada (via Silves and Sesmarias): about 6 hours

Granada

Our first day on the road started later than we intended. Both sets of parents are based in the Algarve (mine for six months, James’ permanently) and it would be rude to leave without saying goodbye. Two pit stops and countless cups of tea later, we were on our way. We didn’t reach Granada until 9:30pm, where we encountered a bit of grid-lock on the by-pass. Thankfully our hotel was near the motorway exit, and was also a short stroll from some excellent tapas bars. Dinner time doesn’t start until 10pm in Andalusia so we had plenty of time to freshen up.

Granada to Valencia: 5 hours

Drive to Valencia

Living in Valencia didn’t work out for us, but we’ll never regret our time there because we got to meet Mike and Juergen from For 91 Days. It would be rude of us to drive across Spain without popping in to say hi, so we had a pit-stop in Valencia (and quite a few glasses of vino tinto). We still really need to give Valencia a proper second chance, as one night on the way to Berlin (and one month living by the beach) wasn’t enough.

Valencia to Girona: technically, 4.5 hours. Really, 8.5.

Girona

We were all set to hit Girona by lunch time when disaster struck. That’s for another longwinded blog post, : all I’m going to say is that if you’re going to break down in Spain, don’t do it on a Sunday. Once we arrived in Girona it was too late to walk into town, but we did wander up in the morning and oh my lord what a wonderful little city. It’s so beautiful, and the Catalan flags hanging from every window reminded me a bit of Leith last September, with the saltires hanging from almost every window.

Girona to Beaune: 7 hours

Beaune

When we were planning our route I suggested Beaune. For some reason I thought my favourite cheese, epoisses, came from there but I was wrong. It is, however, the wine capital of Burgundy. Guys, you should have seen the supermarket here. There was a GINORMOUS epoisses that I sadly wasn’t allowed to buy because Mr Sensible pointed out that it would make our car smell of dog farts. I was allowed to buy a magnum of cremant de bourgogne, however, and a few bottles of champagne and white burgundy.

Beaune to Strasbourg: 4 hours

Strasbourg

This is when we saw snow for the first time all winter and wondered why we were driving north anyway. Are we mad? After wandering around the city for ages looking for somewhere to eat we eventually stumbled upon Académie de la Bière: two people were just leaving a table and we managed to grab it. The beer was fantastic, as was the flammkuchen. Good music, great atmosphere, and exactly what we needed after a few long days on the road. I’d definitely recommend popping in.

Strasbourg to the Czech Republic: 5.5 hours

Cheb

We decided to mix things up a bit by driving straight across Germany to stay in a hotel just inside the Czech Republic, a short drive from a town called Cheb (heh heh heh). The hotel, called Seeberg, was just… wow. The views were fantastic, the decor was quaint, and we had a huge two person bath tub in our room! The breakfast was really good, too. The only down side was dinner: it got to 7:30pm and we decided to check out the restaurant across the way. It was closed, and it was the only place nearby. The hotel owner seemed confused that we wanted dinner, and said she could give us some cold meat or something. We decided to drive into town but it was the same story, nothing open.  I was gutted as I was really looking forward to trying some hearty Czech cuisine.

Czech Republic to Berlin: 4.5 hours

Berlin

Our last day of driving and the weather made us suffer. It started raining, but as soon as the rain hit our windscreen it froze. Our windscreen fluid had also frozen, and our wipers were needing replaced, so we pulled into a service station to grab some anti-freeze. While we were cleaning our windscreen a guy came over to us: at first I thought he was some kind of scammer but he was just looking for help. His car’s battery had drained and he needed someone to give him a jump start.

His story was quite interesting. He was checking out a flat in Leipzig for his Scottish flatmate, who he lives with in Wales, and only had 8 hours to make it to Denmark to get a ferry to Newcastle: where he’d be driving to Aberdeen to pick up his mate, then back down to Wales. He was deaf, and I felt a bit guilty that I can’t sign. We gave him a boost and he went on his way: if you’re out there dude, I hope you made it!

All in all I felt like this seven day drive was a bit of a whirlwind, and it made me realise that two nights in a place is better if you really want to see it. Stupidly I didn’t take time off to travel, so I was trying to squeeze in a few hours of work around driving and exploring.

Relaxing in Lloret de Mar

Today has been super duper relaxing and the perfect end to our three week journey, which ends tomorrow as we (hopefully) arrive in Valencia: our home for the next 5 months! Today I had a much needed lie-in while James went for a run, then we ate a nice lunch of omelette, sausage, and cheese on the balcony of our lovely Airbnb rental.

Afterwards we took a wander into town to see what Lloret de Mar is all about. It’s basically your bog standard coastal tourism resort I suppose. Big nightclubs with posters advertising names like Sean Paul and Snoop Dogg (gutted I wasn’t here in August), shops selling cheesy t-shirts, and tattoo parlours with photographs of drunken body art that their customers have opted for: such as “property of Karlo” tattooed above a lass’s lady garden. Lovely.

Lloret Collage

Underneath the cheesy surface I spotted a few hidden gems. There was a shop selling ice lollies made from fresh fruit juice, some cute little tapas bars with nary a drink deal in sight, and of course a beautiful palm fringed beach. Being October I suppose this is the town’s off season, but I reckon it’s a great time to visit. The temperature was hot enough for me to walk around in a vest top (and catch a tan), while the streets weren’t crowded with rowdy lager louts.

We were planning on going to Bagua Lounge for dinner tonight but our eyes were bigger than our bellies in the supermarket last night and we have some supplies left to use up. Next time, perhaps.

All in all I think Lloret is a pretty beautiful place, and I wish we’d only done one night in Marseilles as I imagine a Friday night here would be anything but boring.

Hello Catalonia!

After our depressing Friday night of no food, alcohol, or any sort of action, I woke up this morning with a splitting headache. Thankfully James is an absolute legend and he agreed to drive us all the way to Lloret de Mar. What a star!

FranceCatalonia collage

We stopped off at an Intermarche to pick up some picnic supplies (rotisserie chicken, baguette, crisps, and tangerines- what more do you need?) then ate it in the sun at one of the lovely aires (road side stopping areas with toilets, picnic benches, and so on).

For some reason driving through France always feels really boring, and like it takes forever. Even when you’re driving past the Cote d’Azure and the Pyrenees. We made it into sunny Spain (more precisely Catalonia) eventually, and stopped again so that James could have a coffee and so I could grab a water for my headache.

I found a much better headache cure once we arrived at our apartment
I found a much better headache cure once we arrived at our apartment

Our first night in Lloret was pretty low key. We ate some chorizo and drank cerveza on our balcony and felt happy to be back in Spain.  Once we arrive in Valencia (our next stop!) that’s us settled until March. Considering we left Berlin on the 1st, we’ve definitely taken our time. I’m excited about being able to un-pack and finally get some washing done.

As for the crisps I won in our wager, well, we shared a packet of chevre flavour in France and some garlic & parsley flavour in Lloret.

Tapas in Bossost – Part 2 of a Two Part Series on Tasty Nibbles in a Spanish Border Town

The last time I posted about Bossost, we talked about pintxos: the basque version of tapas which involves picking what you want from a line up on the bar and saving the cocktail sticks so that the waiter knows how much to charge you.

I know what my fellow tight-fisted Scots are thinking: why not just bin the cocktail sticks and look all innocent? Well first of all, the noisy foodgasm you just had probably tipped them off to the fact that you were munching. Second of all, at  roughly 1 Euro a stick are you really going to cheat these people out of their money?

Our friends wanted to visit Spain, too, when they rocked up at New Year. So we diligently jumped into the car and headed back down over the border, passing through towns with names like Pinas.

This time we decided to have a more leisurely meal; plus Urtau was utterly rammed. Instead we headed to a restaurant with this tantalising offer in the window:

It took a wee while for things to get started. The waitress ignored us for about 15 minutes, and regular readers will know that gets right up my nose. At least offer us a drink and a plate of bread! Eventually it became apparent that they were just trying to clear a backlog of orders before starting on the feast that we were about to order…

To apologise for the tardy service, they started us off with some marinated anchovies and baguette. I have no idea how I managed to spend almost 27 years on this planet without trying a marinated anchovy. I used to sell them when I worked on a deli, for christ sake.

Tender and juicy, that tangy hit of vinegar as you bite into them is soon replaced with a rich fishy sweetness. If you haven’t tried one I suggest you hit your nearest supermarket, pick up a pack, grab a crusty loaf and munch yourself into a foodgasm.

We then experienced a food odyssey as platters of delicious food were brought to our table Unfortunately none of them looked very appealing, apart from the mussels, so you’re going to have to put up with my descriptions instead.

Fat, juicy mussels dripping with a tomato and red pepper sauce, massive grilled prawns, salty and crisp grilled sardines,flavoursome chorizo braised in red wine (perfect for sopping up with the seemingly unending bowls of ‘pan’). Creamy croquettas, tender chilli rellenos, crunchy and sweet patatas bravas, and a smokey cured ham. We had to wave away a few dishes because we were so stuffed.

Three carafes of wine were ordered, although Jack and myself had to settle for Coke (designated drivers) and as the plates kept on and kept on coming, a slightly sozzled Euan decided that it must be €27 a head, not €27 between two as the menu implied. Simply must be. But when the bill arrived, it certainly was €13.50 each for all that food (plus €14.25 for a liter and a half of good Spanish wine). As we paid the bill, our gobsmacked friends declared that they were going to move to Spain.

You can see more pics of the meal, and hear a different take on the day, over at Sam’s blog

Pintxos in Bossost – Part 1 of a Two Part Series on Tasty Nibbles in a Spanish Border Town

The English take booze cruises to France to get their hands on cheaper bevvy and fags. It’s might surprise you to hear that the French do the same thing, taking their cars over the Pyrenees and into Spain when they want to get their hands on the cheap stuff.  We love Spanish wine and food, so we decided that since we’re only staying a couple of hours away from the border, we should pop over and see one of these border towns for ourselves.

Bossost is the nearest one. Well, unless you count Les, which appears to be just one tapas restaurant and a  couple of off licenses. It’s a really nice little town, and it just doesn’t seem Spanish at all. I suppose because we’re in the mountains, it has an almost Alpine air to it. It certainly feels more Swiss than Spanish.

There are plenty of tempting tapas joints to choose from, but James and I always head for Urtau. Located in the Square, this small restaurant serves up that delicious basque speciality of pintxos; tapas on sticks. You choose what you want, the waiter counts the cocktail sticks at the end, and that’s how they know how much you owe them. You can also order a few hot pieces, too.

Usually James is in charge, and he can restrain me: usually picking up 3 pintxos to share along with the obligatory order of patatas bravas and calamares. The second time we visited Bossost we dragged my parents along, and I suppose having them around made me feel cocky as I nabbed the above platter from the bar (and shared them with my beloved, of course).

Being so close to France, the menus are often written in French and Spanish. It’s obviously a bit of a tourist town and the waiters all speak French to us when the realise we’re not from Spain. Even their pintxos are a bit French, although who’s going to complain about a fat wodge of deep fried camembert, drizzled with raspberry compote, on a stick? No me, my friends. No me.

We also ordered the beguiling cod tempura with egg yolk sauce: what a revelation in flavour! Tender chunks of cod, lightly coated in a crisp batter, with a just warmed egg yolk ready burst for a bit of dunking. Super yum.

There are a few other things to look out for in Bossost. There are some great little bakeries, an artisan touron shop (I love touron, btw), and more cheap booze than you can shake a stick at. You can just imagine the look of joy on Daddy P’s face when, after living his whole life in Edinburgh, he found a shop that sold white port at 2 Euro a litre.

But what happens when you don’t want your tapas on a stick? What happens if you’d prefer a more traditional tapa style meal? Stay tuned to find out, nibble fans.

Visiting the French Countryside? Bring a Car!

When I invited Euan and Sam out for New Year, the first question these party animals had for me is “are there many pubs within staggering distance?”

If you count 10 kilometers as a drunken stagger then yes, there are plenty of pubs within staggering distance.

Caussade Riviere, the town we’re house sitting in, is small. In fact, it’s not even a town: it’s more of a hamlet. The main street consists of a gorgeous medieval church complete with fake flower adorned gravestones, a bus stop, a post box, and some bottle banks. There are no shops, unless you count the lady who sells butagaz from her front garden. If you drove through the town in a hurry, you could easily blink and miss it.

Caussade's gorgeous church

It’s probably not the most exciting place to spend your week’s holiday, but thankfully Euan and Jack both drive: and were able to get a car from carrentals.co.uk, the car hire comparison search engine. For £229** they got a Peugeot 3008 for seven days. We called it “the space ship” because it was so spacious and techy. There was a sat nav system that popped out of the dashboard when the engine was turned on, a maaassive sun roof, and a big ice bucket to keep bottles of bubbly from Aldi in.  It was much better than the Fiat Punto I ended up with last March when I made the mistake of renting from Goldcar. Less said about that, the better.

Sam and Shara
Shara and Sam, enjoying the space ship!

Because they had the car, we were able to distract them with a number of adventures- although we didn’t quite get round to skiing (sorry Jack & Shara!)

It also meant we didn’t have to schlep to Toulouse to pick them up from the airport. It’s a four hour round trip, and since James’s parents and brothers had only just left we’d rather use that time to do a bit of cleaning. We are house sitters, after all, and we don’t want to neglect our duties.

We drove to Spain for the day…

Espana por favor!

And we drove to Plaisance for lunch at La Casserole Gourmand; a restaurant I’d highly recommend any of you visit if you ever find yourself near Tarbes.

Euan and Jack enjoying lunch - so much that they've licked the bowl clean. Dirty beggars.

We also popped down to the local supermarket a few times, where Sam turned her nose up at local food.

All in all, having the car was a real bonus and definitely made a difference to the holiday: although the weather was so unseasonably warm, the guys were happy just sitting in the garden all day playing card games and drinking their fill of French wine!

** Big thanks to ASAP Ventures, who very kindly reimbursed our car rental fee,  giving my pals a free car  on behalf of carrentals.co.uk. As is generally the case with sponsored posts, I’m in no way obligated to give a good review, and all opinions are my own

Rain and Pintxos at Cafe Urgain, San Sebastian

Form a queue, boys

The rain in Spain does not fall mainly on the plain, dear readers. Unless of course, San Sebastian is on the plain. Our first day in San Sebastian was lovely; we got to spend most of it on the beach. By the evening of our pintxo crawlwe were starting to hear the rumble of thunder (although I thought it was fireworks).

The next morning it poured with rain.

And it didn’t stop.

We hunkered down in our hotel room, made the most of the free wi-fi, and got on with some work. By 8pm we were starting to getcabin fever and realised we were going to have to leave the hotel at some point.

Thankfully we’d packed our winter clothes in preparation for our long winter house sit, so we dug out our rain coats and wellies and wandered down to see if we could find a nice bar to grab dinner in.

We were staying on the other side of the bay from Parte Vieja. Because it was chucking it down with rain, we couldn’t be bothered with the half hour walk. We wandered into Cafe Bar Urgain, the first pintxo bar we found; and had one of the best nights of our Pyrenean road trip.

The tapas were delicious. And not bad to look at, either! James is always a bit stingy with pintxos, so instead of having one each of everything we shared the following wee nibbles. I’m very proud how restrained I was. Just a few months ago I would have stabbed him with a fork for the lion’s share of these morsels.

Fried food make Jemma happy.
Garlic mushroom. Prawn. Chorizo. Bread. Per.Fec.Tion.
Grilled prawn skewer.

The atmosphere was buzzing, as the TV was showing a football game between Barcelona and Real Madrid. The bar was busy; mostly with locals, which made a real difference from the Parte Vieja which was choca with American, German, and English tourists. The locals were cheering  when Barcelona scored, shouting in Spanish when Real Madrid tucked one into the net,  drinking beer, and having a great time.

I’m guessing James and I looked like a right couple of tourists, sipping our txakoli and tucking into a big portion of patatas bravas!

I could eat patatas bravas forever and never grow tired of them.

The next morning we popped in for a coffee, and there was no sign of the previous night’s rowdiness. The rain had finally stopped too, so we took our pastries and espressos al fresco, in the San Sebastian sunshine. I’m pretty glad it did rain the day before, however, otherwise we might have headed across town again and missed out on this hidden gem altogether.

What have been your best  ‘silver lining’ travel discoveries? 

Pintxo Crawl! Looking for the Best Pintxos in San Sebastian Old Town

We had a week or so between house sits, so after the crash we decided to relax with a little trip around the Pyrenees. Our visit to San Sebastian coincided with James’s birthday, and what better way to celebrate turning 26 than going on a pintxos crawl?

For those who don’t know, pintxos (pronounced ‘pinchos’) are the Basque version of tapas. They’re lined up on the bar, and you just help yourself, and pay at the end. I have no idea how the bartenders remember who’s eating what.

As a couple of food geeks, we take our meal planning seriously. We whipped out our laptops and made the most of the hotel’s free wifi, checking out blogs and review sites to find the best pintxo bars in the Parte Vieja; aka the Old Town.  Once we had a comprehensive list and a plan of action, we wandered around the bay towards the holy grail of buffet style food.

La Mejillonera

Patatas bravas at La Mejillonera
Fried potatoes and mayonnaisey goodness

We started off at this little dive to ‘carb up’ on patatas bravas; an important strategy if you want to eat all night without spending a fortune, and drink all night without ending up sick. The atmosphere reminded me of a busy sports bar, or a kebab shop at around 2am on a Friday night. Toothpicks and mussel shells littered the floor, and the air was full of the shouts of bartenders calling orders through to the kitchen. They only sell a couple of things, mainly bravas and mussels;  but they do them well. At least, the bravas were good; I’d like to have stayed and tried the mussels, too, but the night was still young with many culinary adventures ahead.

We ate: Portion of patatas bravas
We drank: Beer
Bill:  €5.00
Verdict: I’d eat here every night if I could. James probably wouldn’t.

Casa Bartolo 

Squid on a skewer
Just one of Casa Bartolo's culinary delights

This wasn’t on our list of places to check out, but where’s the fun in doing a bar crawl if you’re going to stick to a set list? We stumbled in here and this is the first place we saw the local sparkling wine txakoli being poured; they had an amazing dispenser, shaped like a human arm! We were still too sober to try ordering it, so we stuck to beer. We grabbed a few tasty bites off the bar and decided to share. It struck us at this point how popular voulauvants seem to be, despite being quite unfashionable back home.

We ate: Octopus, bola picante de marisco (spicy fish ball), toast with blue cheese and walnuts
We drank: Beer!
Bill:  €9.60
Verdict: Loved the fish ball. Would probably go back just to order a txakoli.

Bar Haizea

Skewer of delights
Cocktail skewer in Bar Haizea

James added this pintxo bar to the list as our favourite cheffy guy, Anthony Bourdain, apparently visited it on his trip to San Sebastian. It’s made Bar Haizea a bit of a tourist attraction, and apparently the staff can be a wee bit unfriendly because of that. So we did our best to pretend we’d just stumbled in with no idea of the place’s reputation. I thought the food was okay, but James really liked it. Go figure.

We ate: Olive, asparagus, onion and shrimp skewer and a bacalhao pastry.
We drank: Txakoli
Bill:  €6.60
Verdict: I wasn’t impressed, but it was James’s favourite.

Txa Petxa

Anchovy and roe
Yum.

The next tapas bar to hit our radar was Txa Petxa. If you don’t like fish, this is one to avoid. They have a very ‘Bubba from Forrest Gump’ style menu. If you can imagine anchovy with any combination, they have it here. After a bit of deliberation, we went for anchovy with roe and also a portion of calamari. We might have ordered another anchovy based thing, but honestly readers; it starts to get a little foggy here. All I remember is that it  was the best calamari I’ve ever had. Crisp on the outside, soft and tender on the inside.

We ate: Anchovy and roe, calamari
We drank: Txakoli
Bill:  €15.00
Verdict: Our favourite. Despite the steep price, I would definitely go back again and again.

Bar Zeruko

Apple and goat cheese
Trendy tapa

Until this point, all of the pintxo bars we’d visited were a bit like “old man pubs”. Bar Zeruko is trendy. I found it difficult to choose just a couple of tapas to munch on, but James somehow managed to restrain me and we took just two. The place reminded me of a trendy George Street cocktail bar, with the young and the beautiful clamouring to order tasty bites of food instead of fancy drinks. There was one American girl who kept doing my head in, asking me “what’s that?” and “what’s that?” I felt like saying, “I know just as much as you do, love, just grab a pintxo and pray!”

We ate: Goats cheese with apple and honey, serrano ham and squid
We drank: Txakoli
Bill:  €9.60
Verdict: If you visit San Sebastian, I’d definitely recommend going here. Highly recommended by loads of websites, and with good reason.

Gandarias Jatatxea

Anchovy pintxos on the bar top

Most of the websites we looked at raved about Gandarias, and the place was absolutely heaving so we did think we were onto a winner. After queuing at the bar for about half an hour, we eventually managed to grab and pay for our pintxos. We slunk off and found a quiet spot to much them, and sadly we were both pretty unimpressed. Even although I was hammered, I really couldn’t enjoy the weird mayonnaisey flavour of the pintxos we had chosen.

We ate: Some interesting looking toasts with fish on them.
We drank: Txakoli
Bill:  €6.60
Verdict: Biggest disappointment of the evening 🙁

La Vina

Cheesecakes!
Look at all the lovely cheesecakes

After taking a minute to decide where next, we realised that we were pretty drunk and pretty full. With room in our bellies for one more pintxo bar, we decided it was time for dessert. All of the blogs we’d researched our pintxo crawl on said that you had to finish up with a slice of baked cheesecake from La Vina, so we did. It was pretty nice, different from any other cheesecake I’ve had; more like solid creme brulee, if that makes sense.

We ate: Cheesecake
We drank: Txakoli
Bill:  €9.90
Verdict: Expensive cake, but worth it.

So there you have it: our mission to find the best pintxos in San Sebastian. Although we didn’t quite manage to visit everywhere on our hitlist, we had a really awesome night and ate some seriously tasty bar snacks.

 

Ring Around the Pyrenees

I don’t like plans.

Personally, I prefer to go with the flow. I don’t have a bucket list like my friend Sam, and I don’t even have a 5 year plan like most people in their mid twenties. I like to tell myself that it’s because I’m a free spirit, but others tell me it’s because I’m lazy or impractical.

But now I remember why I hate plans: it’s because if one thing goes wrong, then the whole thing’s up in the air. 

Something like a  car crash, for instance. Suddenly our two week break involving a week in Silves via a few nights in Porto became impossible, as we had to travel back to Edinburgh and wait for our new car to be ready.

But when life gives you lemons you have to throw them back in life’s face and say “screw you, life, I’m going to do what I want!”

So we made some new travel plans. I’m hoping that I’m not going to jinx them by putting a wee map up here on the blog, but how awesome do the next few days look?

Adventure

Starting in Salies de Bearn to meet the lovely couple we’re house sitting for.

Three nights in San Sebastian for James’s birthday, where we’ll munch pintxos and drink txakoli.

One night in Zaragozza.

Two nights in Barcelona, where we’re staying on a yacht.

One night just outside Perpignan.

One night just outside Toulouse.

Then back to Salies de Bearn, getting ready for house sit number two!

Is it anal that I chose those destinations just because they make a wee circle around the Pyrenees?

Well it’s like that old saying…