Archive for April, 2011

‘A lot of the older people just don’t come to these bars,’ I commented to my friend as we eased ourselves off the precariously high stools and left the stylish vibes of the Belgian beer palace aka La Maison Belge.

“We are the older people,” she laughed, stating the painfully obvious.

“Ah, but we’re younger, older people. We’re baby boomers,” I replied uncertainly. It’s a form of denial that works…for me anyway.

Martin and Anne are two of our best friends and were staying on Tenerife on a sort of two-centre holiday. The first few day they’d spent in Playa de la Arena before heading to the Hotel Monopol in Puerto de la Cruz to round off their trip. They are both massive fans of Mil Sabores so a visit to this shrine dedicated to ‘food to die for’ is always an essential ingredient of their visit…followed by a bit of liquid fuelled research into what interesting bars happen to have sprung up recently.

La Maison Belge has been around for quite some time now, but we’d never been despite commenting every time we passed the place how inviting the bar stools and table at either side of the door looked. Its interior lived up to the exterior’s promise. More chic stools were dotted around an area that was part bar, part delicatessen and part off licence – albeit one that sells only artistically designed bottles of Belgian beer. Each table had a teasing cheese menu and we would have ordered some to compliment the Duvel and cherry flavoured beers we ordered, but this was only an aperitif stop before filling our bellies with Mil Sabores’ finest offerings. A return visit has been pencilled in pronto.

The food at Mil Sabores was as inspired as always. Last time we visited we couldn’t get a table but this time we were the only diners in the restaurant’s upper floor. We’re in that post Easter lull period that Puerto experiences between the end of the Northern European winter season and the start of the vibrant Spanish one towards the end of June.

Both Andy and I have written more reviews of Mil Sabores than there are items on the menu, so I won’t rehash and repeat. But the quality of the food was as reliable as a faithful sheepdog and the mixed starter for two should have been renamed ‘a starter for 10’ (that dated reference proves I really am ‘older people’).

Post dinner we changed scene, swapping tastefully rustic for 21st C chic and the ultra suave, ultra violet lighting of the suitably named COOL Bar where we ensconced ourselves around a Martini-glass shaped table. One of the attractive qualities of Puerto de la Cruz and the traditional Tenerife towns is that nobody gives a damn what age anyone is, so even the though the majority of the clientèle in some of the trendiest bars can be way, way younger, nobody ever bats an eyelid.

A couple of drinks in COOL and a change of scene was required. The bar at the top of the small paseo where Mil Sabores seems to change name every time I pass it, so now I’m not exactly sure what it’s called. But it was bustling with people and the mix of Cuban and Latino music salsa-ing through the night air grabbed us by the ears and plonked us down at a table inside. Unfortunately it changed to Rod Stewart almost the second our beers arrived and after that veered between Buena Vista Social Club and old British rockers social club. An unusual Heineken-bottled bar compensated for the dodgy sounds.

Somehow by this point it was just after 2am and we decided to have a final nightcap at another venue. I favoured Cuban hot spot, Azucar but was outvoted on the grounds that at 2am the old gentlemen’s club was at its manic zenith. So, as a more conversation friendly option, we grabbed a table outside studenty Magnum where, on a late April night, the temperature was ambient enough for wearing short sleeves

Time in Puerto has a magical way of slipping by as smoothly as a canoe crossing a glassy lake. In barely the sip of a frosty beer it was 3am and time for us ancient boomers to throw in the bar towel as the people populating the tables around us headed off to dance till dawn at one of the clubs that many visitors don’t even know exist.

Puerto has a reputation for being a staid old girl, perfectly suited to ‘more mature’ visitors who aren’t seeking a lively nocturnal scene…and whilst that isn’t exactly inaccurate, neither is it the whole picture.
It’s only staid if you happen to frequent the staid places. For those of us who want to grow old disgracefully, there are lots of places where we can let our hair down (what hair we have left that is) and party (but in Spanish style only) until dawn…or the early hours at least.

Over the last week I’ve enjoyed the privilege of being able to sample the taste-bud tingling best of gastronomy in Asturias on Spain’s verdant northern coast. My belly has been satisfyingly filled and, maybe less satisfyingly, swelled to bursting point by a rich and diverse journey through the region’s cuisine. It has been a culinary voyage that has transported me from hearty rustic dishes such as fabada (bean stew flavoured by chunks of chorizo, tocino, tacón and morcilla) and mountains of grilled meat, as high as the Picos de Europa themselves, to delicately flavoured dishes that were presented with such artistic finesse that I felt like an uncouth vandal as I plunged my fork anarchically into them.

I could write reams about each (and probably will) but for the moment I’m only going to mention three wonderfully unique places that made dining in Asturias an unforgettable pleasure for all my senses.

Tierra Astur – Colloto
Empty jade-coloured bottles hang from the ceiling; legacies of cider fuelled good times past. A calle length counter is topped with perfect specimens of locally grown produce. Huge grills blast out heat as intense of that from a foundry’s furnace and the best seats in the house are inside immense cider barrels.
Asturianos seem to possess voracious appetites and a main course of succulent grilled meats piled high and topped with char-grilled peppers has everyone but seasoned veterans waving the white flag long before the summit of the meaty mountain is conquered. A bottle of locally produced Cangas de Narcea wine with its earthy, full-bodied attitude is just the fellow to unlock the flavours of the food served in Tierra Astur.

The Clock Tower, Laboral, Cuidad de Cultura
Gijón’s eye-catching grand utopian vision, former orphanage and now cultural city is worthy of a visit in its own right. Throw in a lunch in the Hitchcock setting of the clock tower- right behind the clock face in fact – and you’ve got a seriously sexy spot for a chic buffet.
Admittedly it’s a bit of a tease to talk about having lunch in the clock tower of the Laboral as it isn’t  a venue where visitors can just pop in for a quick bite in super stylish surroundings. However, it can be rented out for parties, celebrations and conferences. If eating in a clock tower wasn’t enough of the bees knees, the colour of the tower’s clock faces can even be changed to match those of any corporation holding an event there. The vistas from the top of the tower are increible as were the little Cabrales roulades (blue cheese) that formed part of the buffet when I visited.

The Transcantábrico Gran Lujo
There can be few culinary experiences to match dining somewhere as exciting and nostalgically romantic as the dining carriage of the Transcantábrico Gran Lujo. It’s impossible not to sigh pleasurably as the train trundles past meandering rivers and rolling green countryside where cattle graze lazily and black horses try to outrun the train. This is the stuff of 1930s travel, and dining on elegantly prepared dishes such as hake with spider crab illuminated by the soft light from a Tiffany lamp is paramount to enjoying a tantalising taste of travelling nirvana. It’s particularly impressive how the impeccably attired waiting staff serve food and pour wine without spilling a drop as the train weaves and sways its way through the glorious Asturian countryside, especially considering I couldn’t walk through the carriage without accidentally getting up close and alarmingly personal with my fellow diners.

Of course had it not been for the fact that I was a guest of the Asturian Tourist Board I wouldn’t have been able to eat in a clock tower or in the cosily luxurious confines of the exquisite Transcantábrico Gran Lujo. But if the opportunity for anyone visiting Asturias to follow suit comes up, my advice is to grab it with both hands…and feet.

At the very least seek out Tierra Astur. Eating there is an experience that is accessible to all. One final piece of advice though; don’t eat for a week before going if you want to have any chance of making it to the summit of that meat mountain.

There’s going to be a lot written about Asturias over the next few months. The writers on this incredible trip have our work cut out if our words are to come remotely close to painting a realistically vivid picture of this ‘secret’ region of Spain that has surprised, delighted and charmed all of us.

For the moment I’ll once again let images do my work for me.

Images from top to bottom: Niembro, Cheese maker in Picos de Europa, Cudillero, Covadonga, Llanes

Just about everyone I’ve met in Asturias so far has asked the same two questions – ‘have you been to Asturias before?’ and ‘what do you know about Asturias?’

I’m ashamed to answer that not only have I not visited Asturias, my knowledge of it extends to knowing that Vicky Cristina Barcelona was filmed there. I say ashamed because not being aware of the richness of history, tradition, gastronomy, scenic beauty and life in this spellbinding region of Spain is tantamount to being a crime.

Since arriving here a few days ago my senses have been pleasurably assaulted with such an array of experiences that sight, sound, smell and taste are having a right old bust-up trying to decide which deserves the accolade of enjoying the most memorable experience..

I’m not strong enough a referee to break them up, so whilst they continue to squabble amongst themselves; here are some images of a slice of Spain which has completely bewitched me with its compelling personality.

Images top to bottom: Santiago Calatrava’s Palacio de Congresos in Oviedo; Tierra Astur in Oviedo; Oscar Niemeyer Centre in Avilés; Old quarter of Oviedo; Sidrería in Avilés and Gjión

Just about everyone I’ve met in Asturias so far has asked the same two questions – ‘have you been to Asturias before?’ and ‘what do you know about Asturias?’

I’m ashamed to answer that not only have I not visited Asturias, my knowledge of it extends to knowing that Vicky Cristina Barcelona was filmed there. I say ashamed because not being aware of the richness of history, tradition, gastronomy, scenic beauty and life in this spellbinding region of Spain is tantamount to being a crime.

Since arriving here a few days ago my senses have been pleasurably assaulted with such an array of experiences that sight, sound, smell and taste are having a right old bust-up trying to decide which deserves the accolade of enjoying the most memorable experience..

I’m not strong enough a referee to break them up, so whilst they continue to squabble amongst themselves; here are some images of a slice of Spain which has completely bewitched me with its compelling personality.

There’s only one thing worse than when your aeroplane lands late and your connecting flight has already departed. And that’s when your plane lands late and there’s a teensy weensy glimmer of hope that you might still make it. This is just the travel gods messing with you.

I had a feeling that the woman across the aisle was going to cause me a problem, I just didn’t know how…until the plane landed at Madrid airport and she had her suitcase out of the locker and blocking my row of seats before I had my seatbelt open.

There had only been fifty five minutes between flights, so any delay at all was going to put my making the second stage of my journey to Asturias in jeopardy. As it was the plane from Tenerife had landed 25 minutes late.

The woman, who had placed her suitcase strategically blocking me so that her aged and not very mobile parents could get out before me, added 10 minutes to the time it took me to get off the damn plane – there was much huffing, puffing and muttering going on from me as we crawled our way to the exit.

I eventually emerged into Barajas airport at 3.37pm. The connecting flight to Asturias and Turismoas was due to depart at 3.55pm.

At first I thought the gods had let me off the hook. The departure gate for Asturias was 41 and the Tenerife flight had arrived at gate 40. But any feeling of hope was soon cruelly dashed. The gate next to the one I’d arrived at was 42, the gate opposite was 43 but 41 was absolutely nowhere to be seen. I did a couple of frantic circuits of the area, looking for anyone that seemed remotely connected with the airport, as my mind refused to accept that there was no gate 41. Then I caught site of a monitor and realisation dawned. Madrid airport is so dammed big it had at least two sets of gates numbered in the forties. The one I was after was at the other end of the airport.

At that point it was time to slip into Jason Bourne mode (from the outside it might look like a geek panicking, but on the inside it’s Jason Bourne). A quick check of the monitor to confirm, a glance at the signs and I was off and running.

A sign very helpfully told me it was 12 minutes (do the maths) to the J zone. Actually what it really said was ’12 minutes and you’ve no chance mate’.

It was 24C in Madrid and as I negotiated an endless series of Escher-esque escalators at speed wearing the heaviest jacket I own, I cursed the fact that I had actually paid any attention to the idiot on TripAdvisor who had spent 15 minutes in Asturias and declared it be cold and wet and sunless between September and May.

One escalator descended to a waiting train about to depart for J zone, now 7 minutes away, and my last remaining hope. But in between me and it’s gaping doors was a row of people blocking the stairs. At the bottom, causing the blockage, was the woman who’d slowed me down exiting the plane. This was no time for politeness so murmuring ‘permiso, permiso, permiso’ I barged my way through the mob, past the woman and onto the platform as the doors hissed their intention to shut.

I jumped through them a second before they slid closed, leaving the annoyingly doddering woman back on the platform. The train took forever before we reached J zone (how big can an airport be?) and another obstacle; I had to go through security to get to the gate. Just to slow me down further the female guard insisted that I remove my netbook from its bag, losing me more vital seconds.

With hope all but dashed, I sprinted the final few yards to the empty departure lounge at gate J41…empty apart from a member of airline staff behind the desk.

‘Señor Montgomery?’ she asked before adding one delicious and very, very welcome word when I nodded. ‘Adelante.’

The travel gods had really had their fun with me but I didn’t care as I collapsed into my seat; I’d beaten them and made the flight against all the odds. But as we taxied across the runway a thought occurred to me. I must have broken some sort of record for getting from one side of Madrid airport to the other; the chances of my luggage doing the same were almost non-existent.

As we took off into the blue, blue sky I was sure I could hear the travel gods chuckling with glee.

I’ve been to quite a few shindigs since I moved to the Canary Islands and I don’t think two have ever been quite the same. The most bizarre was a barbecue in a museum in Puerto de la Cruz which was enjoyable in a surreal way, but my favourites are those held by my friend, Jo in Garajonay National Park on La Gomera.

I like these Gomeran parties in the hills partly because there are absolutely no pretensions connected with them and also because they’re very community oriented. Most of the food and drink has been made or distilled by someone present. That factor lends a quality that you would never find in a suburban Abigail’s Party affair.

The one I attended recently was a good example. The day started off with a sort of casual planning session over breakfast as we came round from a bout of ‘catching up’ with each other over a few glasses of vino the night before. Jo had very kindly given up her room to Andy and I whilst she shared the guest bedroom with Sri Lankan Sarah (visiting from Doncaster). Honorary northerner Keith (visiting from Exeter) was consigned to the second spare room which also happened to be the pantry where all the booze was stored, so no great hardship for him there.

The party was due to start at 3pm and throughout the day preparations came together in a slow casual manner between a series of outfit changes from the women present that would rival an episode of Sex and the City (one for breakfast, one for cleaning and cooking, one for a post cleaning beer and then one for the party itself). I’ve learnt from past soirées that the smartest plan of action is to offer to do something creative in the kitchen. As Jo’s cooker is an antique specimen with hobs that have a mind of their own and hardly produce enough heat to barbecue a fly, it keeps me out of the road and away from cleaning duties for most of the day.

The ‘something creative’ was to make a couple of trays of empanadas (little cresent shaped pies), spicing up the usual tuna, tomato, onion ingredients with a mix of spices, a splash of soy sauce and a few other ingredients from Jo’s kitchen cupboard as Taj Mahal provided a mellow soundtrack whilst the others bustled about prettying up the terrace and themselves (all except Keith…on both counts). To be honest when you’ve got a terrace overlooking an unspoilt valley, it doesn’t really need a lot of prettying up. The views distract from anything else.

After the empanadas were out of the road Andy got creative with some Serrano ham and olives whilst Sarah and I set up a production line to make mini two-cheeses montaditos topped with olives and sun dried tomatoes and then a bowl of tumaca (tomato, garlic, olive oil, pepper mixture for spreading on hit bread) to complement the Serrano that hadn’t been artistically arranged by Andy. A couple of shop bought tortillas and a mountain of fresh crusty bread finished off our contribution.

After that it was time for a beer as other guests began to arrive adding their own contributions including Berliners (little doughnuts with jam), home brewed red and white wines; a huge and quaffable carton of cider (also home brewed) that seemed bottomless, cumin flavoured cheese, guacamole, couscous and intriguing hibiscus flowers soaked in syrup which are supposed to be added to cava (they look pretty, but actually spoil the crispness of cava).

From then on it was just a matter of mingling, chatting with a load of interesting people and sampling each person’s goodies as the afternoon turned to evening, then night, then early morning. There’s no talk about who’s got the biggest house or the flashiest car. Material posessions that aren’t functional aren’t important on the edge of the rainforest. The only rivalry evident is related to who has made the most potent home brew and the only bullshit about is where it belongs…in the fields.

In the end not a lot happens at these parties. We eat, we drink, we chat, we laugh and we feel wonderfully relaxed. But most of all for a short time we feel part of a tiny close-knit community in a remote valley on a little island near Africa. And that alone is something very special.

Some folks have pretty bizarre ideas about other people’s travel preferences. I recently followed, with growing amazement, an online forum thread that more or less castigated anyone who promoted the idea of getting out and about exploring the holiday destination they were visiting.

Only ‘snooty gits’ and ‘high minded snobs’ (their words) were weird enough to want to seek out some local culture apparently. Ordinary folks prefer to soak up the sun in their holiday resorts; preferably surrounded by the familiarity of British bars and restaurants (Chinese, Italian and Indian restaurants are included in this).

Lying around a beach or a pool in a holiday resort all day long is not my glass of sangria, it would bore me to the high heavens. it represents dullsville…on a cloudy day…when everything is shut. But I recognise it’s what many people want from their holidays. I have friends who fall into that group; different people like different things; simple as that. Each to their own, live and let live and…(add your own cliché here).

But a statement that really irks me is when people come out with a variation of ‘I’ve been working hard so I’ll give the culture seeking a miss this time. All I want to do is chill out by the pool and stay around the resort.’ It’s a cop-out line.

This sort of attitude winds me up for a number of reasons:

  1. It could be seen to imply that people who do go out and explore the destinations they’re visiting haven’t been working hard. It’s a ridiculous notion.
  2. It suggests that experiencing a different culture is hard work. It’s a ridiculous notion – the sequel.
  3. There’s also an inference that doing anything else other than lying a round a pool and hitting the local Brit bars is boring (hello irony).  Return of the ridiculous notion part 3.

It’s also completely dishonest; people who use this as an excuse for only hanging out by the pool avoid culture-seeking not because they’re tired after working hard in their jobs. They avoid culture-seeking because it doesn’t interest them. And if that’s the case why not just admit it instead of concocting lame excuses? I have more respect for the people who are upfront about this.

As for the silly comments about people who seek out different cultures being ‘high-minded’, those are a defence mechanism from people who feel threatened by others who enjoy travel rather than those who just enjoy a hotel pool. The language used speaks volumes and identifies the user as not having a clue about the treasures beyond gold that experiencing another country’s culture can bring; it’s not all always about churches and museums.

Andy and I are a couple of those oddballs that actively seek out ‘cultural’ activities and a typical day when we’re travelling for pleasure consists of:

Early-ish rise, hit the nearest beach, bask in the sunshine and catch up on lost sleep for a couple of hours, eat lunch, go exploring (utilising trains, planes, automobiles, tuk-tuks, elephants or whatever is to hand), enjoy a ‘post cultural experience’ beer or two, have a siesta, eat dinner (local cuisine of course), hit the liveliest local bar or fiesta (with live music preferably), get slightly merry, head home in the wee small hours, fall into bed, sleep…reboot.

The secret that the pool dwellers don’t realise is that travellers like us don’t just enjoy the cultural experience…we get the beach and bars as well as stockpiling some great memories that live on way, way, way after the suntan has faded.