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Monday, September 13, 2010

Hiking (and Eating!) Through the Swiss Alps

Arosa, Switzerland
Summertime in Europe is traditionally celebrated by the locals with long, lazy sojourns to Spain and the Mediterranean where they can relax on the beach, soak up some sun, and escape the stuffy or stormy climates from whence they came. Fortunately for us, this translates into two key benefits when working out a summertime trip on the continent: 1) the proclivity of Europeans to frequent Greece, Spain's Balearic Islands, and typical working-class holidays spots such as Benidorm means there are relatively few other travelers at the non-beach destinations, and 2) the desire for those destinations (and the airline carriers that supply those destinations) to attract visitors keeps prices below what they would normally be.

Tschuggen Bergoase Spa
So it was armed with this information that we planned an end-of-summer holiday weekend to the Swiss Alps -- four days of hiking, fondue, spa treatments, more hiking, local wild game, and just about all the Swiss stereotypes you could shake a stick at. We selected the small off-season village of Arosa as our base of operations given its easy access via the Swiss rail system, excellent ski-based infrastructure (think free, enclosed gondola rides to the tops of the more grueling mountains) and picturesque location amidst the convergence of the Swiss and Italian Alps. And what else does Arosa boast that other nearby villages do not? How about one of the Leading Hotels of the World, the Tschuggen Grand Hotel, and its Mario Botta-designed Tschuggen Bergoase spa.


After a quick (1 hr, 10 min!) flight from London Heathrow to Zurich and a remarkably-efficient transition to the regional train system (Zurich's airport connects to the central train station via a convenient city train below the airport's central terminal) we were enjoying a comfortable and scenic train ride past alpine lakes, precipitous granite cliffs, wooly sheep and brown swiss dairy cows, and enough multi-story waterfalls that we soon lost count. The Swiss rail system is everything you'd expect from the world's pre-eminent watch makers: smooth, efficient, and punctual. The only thing we wish they offered was complimentary beverage service in their first-class cars...



The Parpaner Rothorn
Over the next three days we explored the extensive and well-marked local trail system, which included the possibility for hikes of any length and level of difficulty. Arosa's location in the glacial mountain valley, surrounded by foothills that gradually extend upward to the rocky thrust-fault formations of the Weisshorn, Parpaner Rothorn, and other imposing mountain peaks means than even beginners and occasional walkers can enjoy the scenery and bracingly-fresh air from the trail only 1/4 mile from town. Armed only with the freely-provided and widely-available trail map given us by the hotel, we easily set out on short walks through the adjacent farmlands and longer jaunts along mountain ridges and up as far as we could get without technical climbing equipment. 
Pizokel - spinach pasta and crispy bacon

Fondue!
And what could go better with limitless views of an Alpine landscape, crisp mountain air, and the faraway sounds of Swiss cows in the valley below? Why, the heartiness of Swiss cuisine, of course! A blend of German, French, Italian, and Romansh traditions, Swiss fare has stressed the importance of locally-sourced, in-season products throughout its history -- there are no food fads here. Rich yet subtle fondues of Gruyere, Emmental, and Appenzeller cheeses dipped into with freshly-baked whole grain breads; schnitzels of local chamois and venison paired with slightly crispy, oven-finished spaetzle, roasted chestnuts, and sweet pickled cabbage; and some of Europe's best-kept secrets in wine are more than ample options for refueling after a good day's hike.

Spaetzle
Spending a rainy day at the spa? The Bergoase boasts a wonderfully serene and airy cafe where you can enjoy lighter fare in between treatments or after a splash in one of the many jetted thermal pools.

Restaurant Grischuna
While we chose to visit in the summer, the Swiss Alps are obviously better known as an international ski destination. With the likes of Zermatt, Chamonix, and Verbier just a short train ride away, Arosa also makes for an excellent base camp from which to explore the rest of the region in wintertime. That is, of course, if you tire of the world-class skiing and all that Arosa has to offer -- and that doesn't seem too likely.


Whether you're looking to stretch your legs in the Alps, the Andes, or anywhere in between -- we've got you covered. As your in-the-know source for where to go, what to do, and what to eat, think of The Gastronomic Traveler as your globe-trotting friend with all the in's. We'll get you where you want to be! 



Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Stroll Through Madrid



We've been a tad delinquent here at The Gastronomic Traveler with our blog postings, but with things somewhat calmer now after a fast-paced summer we're going to try and get everyone caught up -- and see if we can't get your travel bug going!


Churros con Chocolate!
After a disappointing first-game showing from the Spanish, we decided to take a walk around the capital to see a few sights. Madrid boasts a wonderfully walkable old city center, with the Palacio Real on its western edge and the Parque del Buen Retiro to its east. In between lies historic plazas, local markets, and an opportunity to have a few tapas at nearly every turn! For breakfast we indulged a bit on one of our favorite Spanish treats -- churros con chocolate! Now readily available in the US at virtually every trendy Spanish restaurant (or ballpark in California) the authentically sweet, crispy-on-the-outside curly version is best enjoyed in its homeland, and makes for a sugary-rushed breakfast worth every last carb. The perfect boost for a walk through the city!


Mercado de San Miguel
Just south of the Plaza Mayor lies the Mercado de San Miguel, a modernist glass and steel enclosure surrounded by Spanish Colonial tradition and housing a broad array of locally-produced treats. As is typical of most European markets, everything was on offer here: fish, meats (you can never have enough jamon!), cheeses, pickled veggies, wine, sweets, breads... basically everything needed for a day at the park... and then some! 


Pimientos y Acietes
The market boasts a handful of tapas counters and two wine bars, conveniently placed astride both lean-up counters and a handful of small tables. The colors, smells, and sounds of the market were as varied and wondrous as the rest of the city, and we were a touch sad to move onward -- but not before picking up a few treats for the road!


A hidden garden
reveals another beauty!
It's difficult to define the city of Madrid as a whole, given that so many different elements interplay across its urban fabric. There are, of course, the grandiose structures housing Spain's national government and more historic buildings and sites than can be reasonably accommodated in only a handful of days; interspersed amongst these treasures, however, are the more familiar places that draw Madrilenos on a regular basis -- coffee shops, tascas, music stores, and local grocers. 


Walking through a city like Madrid, it's easy to be looking up at the monuments and attractions so often as to miss the daily routine going on about you... which is precisely why we opted out of the traditional tours of the Palacio and the Prado and wandered instead through the smaller plazas and districts of the city. And in doing so, we came across a number of hidden gems and beautiful, out of the way places where we could literally spend days (if our travel schedule allowed.)
Side Gate to the Parque
Case in point -- the Parque del Buen Retiro. This magnificent and physically overwhelming space at the old city center's eastern edge is truly the "lungs of Madrid", providing vast amounts of green space in such quantity that, even on a busy day, the park feels empty and peaceful. 


Just you and the ducks...
Monuments, formal gardens, and historic structures abound within the park grounds but visitors can still find comfortable benches away from the tour groups and out-of-school children to relax in the sun, read a book, and walk away feeling refreshed and re-energized. 


Only two blocks from the hordes at the Prado, it feels as though you could be the only one in Madrid at that moment. Nice.



Come see what a few days in Madrid can do for you -- contact us today to plan your holiday in Spain! 

Still worth a stop!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Bievenidos a Madrid!

After an easy train ride back to Schiopol Airport and an approximately two-hour flight from Amsterdam, we’ve arrived in Spain’s capital city. Madrid’s public transport system – just like pretty much all of the public transport systems across Spain – is well-marked, clearly organized, and user-friendly even to the casual user and sometimes-Spanish speaker. Following a quick metro ride into the Sol station and a four-block walk to our hotel (the Room Mate Alicia), we’re out in the Plaza de Santa Ana enjoying the sunshine and that palpable Spanish conviviality as we meander toward our afternoon destination to watch the Ivory Coast take on Portugal.

After a lazy walk around the old city center, we settled in at a local tasca (that’s a tapas bar) to catch the second half of what may be the tournament’s most boring game thus far. The 0-0 draw suits us fine, however, and frees us up to enjoy some sherry and tapas at La Venencia – named after the wine-sampling tool otherwise called the “wine thief”. Despite their strict no-pictures policy, we managed to catch some snaps anyway. 

La Venencia is about as purely-Spanish as any place can be: simple, unadorned, and delicious. You can choose glasses of five or so different types of sherry, select a plate of chorizo, olives, or other delectable treats, and settle in for light conversation amidst the locals. Wonderful.
 
Another leisurely walk around, and soon we found ourselves ready for Round Two. Thankfully the Toscana Taberna was right there, and we were treated to crispy boquerones, plates of jamon iberico de bellota, and a truly amazing morcilla (cumin-scented, slightly spicy blood sausage.) 

Matched with the house rioja, the morcilla was absolutely what it should be: rich, meaty, and just a hint of those elusive spice notes. Mmm! (Too bad I didn't manage to get a photo before we devoured it.) Now hopefully tomorrow La Furia Roja can match the brilliance of our meal tonight...

Want to experience it for yourself? Contact us now and we’ll get you there!

Hup Holland Hup!

Today Holland begins its campaign to bring home the world’s most prized trophy, and they’ll do so against pseudo-rival Denmark (Holland, which is only a portion within the Netherlands but generally comes to be the name by which the entire country is represented during activities outside their own borders, also considers Germany a rival.) Someone has apparently alerted the Dutch that their game is the early game today (with a 130p local start time) because absolutely nothing is open for business except bars and restaurants showing the game. This may be because everyone in Amsterdam is at one of three squares in the town center wearing an orange traditional reserved in the US for hunting.

We came across a fortuitous find this morning – Pancakes! Amsterdam – and it was open (well, we had to wait until 10am, but then it opened. The Dutch don’t care for an early start.) 

I selected the lemon and sugar pancake, which was like a crispy-on-the-bottom crepe with just the right amount of sweet and tart. My breakfast companions chose the banana, bacon, and chili pepper pancake; a chicory, camembert, and ham offering with a drizzle of raspberry sauce; and a chocolate, caramel, and walnut option that I’m sure was created by a dentist with ulterior motives. Needless to say, the options at Pancakes! Amsterdam were inventive, delicious, and an altogether pleasant way to start the day.

Amsterdam has a café culture: any street with dining options will be cluttered with tables and chairs outside when the weather permits. Today it’s approximately 75 degrees Fahrenheit with bright sunshine – just in time for the game! With no one at work, every café stretching as far into the public space as they can, and a jovial happier-than-usual Dutch populace singing and cheering on the Oranje, today is going to be a good day.

We made a few friends while we watched the game at the Rembrandtplein, and the Dutch welcomed us Oranje-cheering Americans with open arms. The game was a success – despite missing striker Arjen Robben, the Oranje dispatched the Danes 2-0 with little effort.  

We celebrated the victory, watched the following game, then took a break for some thai at Rankana in the Western Canal Belt. The Dutch particularly enjoy Indonesian food, but thai has been enjoying a resurgence as of late, and Rankana didn’t disappoint. Crispy spicy duck, a peppery chicken curry, and two bowls of sticky, slightly sweet jasmine rice later and we were quickly sated. Better than the thai on offer in the US but not nearly as good as what you find in Bangkok, I’d say Rankana is a perfectly serviceable option for a relaxed, mid-range meal in a scenic part of the city.

Tomorrow we’re off to Madrid for a few days of La Furia Roja, tapeos (a tapas bar crawl), and big Spanish wines. Viva Espana!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Amsterdam

For a city world-renowned as a den of vice rivaled only by Las Vegas, the casual visitor to Amsterdam would hardly know it save a few tell-tale signs and one very avoidable area. We arrived on a quick one-hour flight from Heathrow into Amsterdam’s Schiopol Airport, and following a walk through customs and immigration and a quick detour to purchase train tickets we were off to the city center. Amsterdam’s airport is clean, relatively straightforward (for a European airport) and connected to the city center by an efficient, comfortable train service. Eight euro for two people into Amsterdam’s Centraal Station was a much nicer option than the 35 euro flat rate in a cab, and the transit time took all of 13 minutes – not too shabby.

We chose to stay along the Amstel River at the Eden Hotel Amsterdam, a small European hotel chain known for clean, quiet, simple accommodations. Following a complimentary upgrade we found ourselves in a perfect oversized room away from street noise and the bustle of the service corridor. Not that we’ll be in the room that much, but it’s nice to have a quiet space!

A quick wander through the city can easily turn into a multi-hour walk once you put away the map and simply enjoy the city. Amsterdam’s quaint and bicycle-friendly roads, intimate architecture, and interspersing of canals really are a treasure to behold, and there’s no shortage of rest and refreshment options as you meander along. 

With the city center being so compact you can easily walk to and through the major parts of the city in half a day, leaving time to explore more thoroughly once you’ve gotten the relative lay of the land (and water.)
 
Going back to that vice bit for a second: sure, there are “coffeeshops” interspersed throughout the city, and most souvenirs are going to center on the crass and vulgar aspects of the Red Light District, but these two things by no means should personify such a beautiful and happy city. 


With a friendly, English-speaking population, a mix of cultures and cuisines, and some of Europe’s quaintest scenery, Amsterdam retains a more romantic and peaceful charm than what popular media and general public perception would have you believe. We say come to Amsterdam and see for yourself!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Game Day – England v USA



After months of anxiety and anticipation, the day has finally come – England v USA for the first time in the World Cup since 1950. Soccer fans already know (as does anyone with ESPN on at any point in the past three months) that our previous match ended 1-0 USA; could we do it again? I thought so, but the English are a strong side…

We decided on a morning diversion away from the games to Borough Market, which lies just south of London Bridge and contains a diverse (and dizzying) array of shops, merchant stalls, and street sellers offering everything from housewares and durable goods to freshly-cut Spanish hams and boutique honeys. Markets generally are a great way to see first-hand the broad range of foods and other delectables being produced locally to a destination, and the Borough Market is no different. Given its size and position as both a tourist spot and local farmer’s market, the depth of offerings here is greater than you’d find at home – it reminds us a lot of Barcelona’s Mercat de la Boqueria, or the morning market in Ubud – and its that breadth and depth that makes Borough and interesting place to visit each and every time.

After a few flavorful samples at Neal’s Yard Dairy, we settled on hunk of Berkswell and a pungent, creamy blue. The Berkswell was approaching the crumbly stages of cheddardom, ripe with that sharpness and tang that only unpasteurised semi-firm cheeses can bring – a few pieces of our decidedly-overlarge was all that was needed, so we wrapped up the rest to carry home. The blue paired nicely with the freshly-baked (and still warm!), slightly-sweet baguette we picked up for next to nothing (bread is an  incredibly low-margin product) and we chanced upon a nice spot beside the Thames to enjoy our finds. After our saunter through the market, a relaxed snack of bread, cheese, and ham, and a wrap-up of cocoa and cranberry brownies we were ready for the game.
 
We decided on an American-friendly pub in Chelsea – Henry J Bean’s – to watch the game. Many pubs we’d passed were explicitly English-fans only, so it was nice finding a place accommodating to our cheering preferences. Henry’s is a small chain here in London, but the atmosphere come game-time was anything but reminiscent of a Ruby Tuesday’s…

By now you know the score – England v USA ended in a 1-1 draw. For our part, we congratulated the England fans after Gerrard’s quick strike, applauded our good fortune on Dempsey’s goal, and held our breath as Altidore’s would-be game-winner caromed off the goalpost. Ties may be boring to some, but this match had it all – and we were exhausted at the final whistle. Just as well, since tomorrow we head to Amsterdam!

Copa Mundial 2010

Friday saw The Gastronomic Traveler welcoming the opening of the World Cup with the rest of the world in the only way we could see fit: with good friends, good food and drink, and hopeful aspirations for the USA over the next four weeks. 

After coordinating the arrival and pickup of friends at London Heathrow, we were soon off to The Fat Badger on London’s Portobello Road for some antipasti and an inventive parma, peach, and mozzarella salad. 

The Fat Badger is truly a gastropub in the strictest sense: the food is orders of magnitude better than a traditional pub’s, yet it retains that casual vibe and low-key sense of process so typical of London pubs.

After enjoying the first two games of the Cup, we headed across the street to the aptly named Galicia for some northwestern-Spanish tapas: our favorite pub food. 

Settling finally on a few seafood offerings such as the squid in ink, grilled octopus with paprika, and white anchovies – all washed down with ice-cold Estrella Damm, naturally – we were back at reminiscing of our Spanish adventures and getting excited for the coming week’s festivities in Madrid. 

While the octopus was a tad chewy and the squid a little more ‘of the sea’ than we’d have preferred, it was all in all a nice way to end the evening, wonder about tomorrow, and get a taste of things to come. 

Techno-Snafu!

First off, many apologies for the technical issues that have prevented us from posting every day; we (hopefully) have things all straightened out today… which means a series of write-ups that haven’t gotten posted since last Saturday! We hope you enjoy!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

An Overnight to Reading

Our first adventure outside the London city limits takes us to Reading, a moderately-sized town in Berkshire just about 40 miles west of London. History buffs will already know that Reading was an important stop along the River Thames during the medieval period, and became a place of pilgrimage with the founding of the Reading Abbey in the early 1100s. The Abbey was all but destroyed by Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-1500s; the last abbot was hanged, then drawn and quartered in front of the Abbey church.

And where exactly is that church? Why, adjacent to the Forbury Hotel, of course! The Forbury is the top luxury hotel in the area, a classic reuse of the former Berkshire Shire Hall and a beautiful example of townhouse-style construction from the early 1900s. Each of the 23 rooms and suites boast original works of art from the region and around the globe; pieces in the public areas of the hotel are on loan rotation from La Galerie in Pimlico.

Our stay included an overnight in a Superior Room on the first floor (second floor to us Americans); each room in the hotel is lavishly-appointed and no two rooms are the same. As is befitting a true luxury hotel (and that term gets tossed around inappropriately quite a bit) the staff were welcoming, knowledgeable of the area, and happy to assist with even minor trivialities (RJ11 phone cord adapter, anyone?) with a warm smile. And, as you know, a competent and resourceful staff is the backbone of any successful luxury establishment. Couple this with simply prepared, delectable offerings from the kitchen – the Eggs Benedict is my standard rule by which hotel breakfasts are measured, and this one came with a surprisingly lemony-fresh hollandaise (albeit a tad more than needed) and parma ham – and you have a recipe for success.
 
My main goal here in Reading was to explore the Hosier Street market – 60 stalls selling food, flowers, plants, crafts, and household goods – and see how many of the more than 100 pubs in town we could visit (quite a lot of pubs for a town this size…) The sheer number of pubs around the central town square was enough to fill both afternoons and evenings, and as is the case with many pubs in the UK, a diverse array of real ales and local pints were available at each stop. My personal favorite? The Abbot Ale from the Pitcher & Piano…

All in all, the trip was a pleasant diversion from the recent stress of getting the new office established. Up next for The Gastronomic Traveler? Ten days in London, Amsterdam, and Madrid watching the World Cup with local fans. Follow our gastronomic and sporting adventures over the next two weeks with live postings every day as we seek out the classic and the unusual in these three cosmopolitan capitals! 

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Hello, London!

Well, Travelers, after months of preparation and anticipation it’s finally here: our London office. Nestled in a picturesque hamlet just off the Chiswick High Road (and conveniently located near Fuller's Griffin Brewery), our London base is wired up and ready to assist you. We’ve positioned ourselves here to give you an even broader reach into Europe’s hidden gastronomic gems and famous locales as well as increased real-time access to our services while abroad in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. If you’re in the greater London area, drop us a line: we’d love to show off the new digs!

With all there is to see and do, it’s hard not to love London: it’s the global capital, the biggest hub of transport options to every corner of the world, and home to an eclectic mix of people from literally everywhere. Most importantly to us, however, is the direct result of all these things: no city has a greater breadth and depth of unique cuisines and cultures to explore, all conveniently within walking distance of public transport! Whether you’re craving curry or have a hankering for Hungarian, London’s got a choice spot serving up just what you’re after. How about some Ethiopian tej in Shepherd's Bush? Or a whole snout-to-tail experience in Smithfield? You can find everything from the perfect hole-in-the-wall takeaway to multi-Michelin starred gastronomic Meccas, and none are too far from wherever you are. (With the exchange rate so favorable these days, why not consider a trip?)

Because we can never settle on just one cuisine, over the coming months we’ll be featuring weekly a different restaurant, area, or event taking place here in London. We begin with Momo, a North African restaurant tucked down Heddon Street in what has been branded the Regent Street Food Quarter. Every restaurant along this small (400ft long, perhaps?) pedestrian area boasts comfortable indoor spaces and optionally-covered outdoor spaces, many with heaters to ward off that London chill come fall.

At Momo we celebrated the opening of the London office by tucking into briouats (a fine pastry stuffed with cheese, mint, and potatoes) and wood pigeon pastillas (filo filled with lightly spiced wood pigeon, almonds, and cinnamon) with orange confit before enjoying lamb tagine with saffron pears and sultanas. We paired the briouats with a minty cocktail, which lightened the pastry and accentuated the quince compote alongside the little Moroccan cheese puff. It seems like every culture has its version of this cheesy little treat, and there haven't been any as yet that we haven't enjoyed. That being said, pastry can be quickly overcome by oil during frying and end up greasy and heavy: not so with these briouats, which were perfectly crispy on the outside, rich and savory inside, and not even remotely greasy -- a difficult task to accomplish!

For the pastillas, a lovely French rosé added bright acidity and floral notes to what could have been an overpoweringly-spicy dish – a low-tannin Chianti also paired well with the cardamom, cinnamon, and other African spices used to soften the game’s pungency. Altogether a wonderfully balanced dish alongside its citrus confit, and something I wish I could prepare at home!

Normally we’d go for a Pinot or a Rhône-style red with lamb, and this instance was no exception. Choosing a Côte-Rôtie to pair the wine’s floral aroma with the subtle saffron pears – perfectly poached – and peppery notes with the lamb and spices worked brilliantly, accentuating the meatiness of the lamb and drawing out the sweet-savory complexity of the onion confit on top. Unfortunately all this pairing and tasting left us unable to consider the chef’s signature sweets for dessert, but I imagine we’ll find ourselves darkening Momo’s doorstep again soon.  

We’ve celebrated the official opening of the London office, and now it’s your turn: to help you celebrate we’re offering a Currency Exchange Discount -- simply call or email us by 31 July to get your travel planning process underway (and book your trip by 31 December 2010) and we’ll discount our fees by the prevailing USD:GBP markup rate. If you call today, that would be a savings of 44% -- an average of $325 on a seven-day trip!

Happy Travels!

fred