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Bonnie Scotland

16 Mar

I finally managed to get the photos organized from our weekend trip to see a wee bit o’Scotland. Apologies to the Scots, but I was so happy to hear “wee” and “bonnie” often…although they’re not likely to make it into my normal vernacular, as I can’t say the words without giggling, I simply loved hearing them used.  We did hear some Gaelic spoken, but occasionally it was when someone spoke English with the strong Scottish brogue that I wished for wearable subtitles.   The Europcar man who took in our rental car at the end of the trip told us that the Lowlanders can hardly understand the Highlanders – how they preserve these regional accents is curious to me considering what a small country Scotland is and that the news media seems to be national. I hope they can keep those local identities – the culture and language are richer for those differences.

In a word, Scotland was incredible.  We were lucky with the weather, and since we opted to visit in the least-touristy time of year, the only issues we had were some of the distilleries that we might have visited on our road trip were closed on the weekends.  We had three days to amble from Aberdeen to Glasgow, a right-hand drive rental car to keep things exciting, our GPS to frustrate us, and a loose itinerary that required we make nightfall in both Inverness and Oban to use the free hotel stays I booked.  Our “loose” itinerary included mandatory stops at Loch Ness, as many castles as we could find, and two distilleries from different whisky regions (Highlands and Lowlands).  The rest of the time, we wandered!  The main goal of the trip was to enjoy some natural beauty, as a most of our other getaway weekends while being in Europe have been to learn about the old cities with their history and culture.

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We did learn a bit about Scottish culture by making an effort to learn about whisky. Scottish whisky is double-distilled (except for Auchentoshan, the lowlands distillery we visited), and depending on the region where it is made, takes on flavors from burning peat (e.g., Islay whiskies) or the barrels where it is aged (e.g., Auchentoshan whiskies).  The stills where the spirits are distilled are each a special shape, which apparently imparts something different into each whisky, as well.  We’ve really enjoyed getting to understand more about the “scotch” that until last September, neither one of us had been particularly interested in.  Now, Justin is particularly fond of Islay single-malt whiskies (which can be rather strong in terms of the peat-smoke taste that you almost feel like you just drank a campfire).

Justin and our wonderful tour guide at the Glen Garioch distillery are checking out the mash tun.

Justin and our wonderful tour guide at the Glen Garioch distillery are checking out the mash tun.

We stopped at Glen Garioch for a tour at 9:30am, when they opened, and the lovely woman in the shop blinked at us a few times as if trying to decide what kind of people we might be coming in so early…before whisking us around on a ‘wee tour and giving us a ‘wee tasting of their Highlands style single malts for free.  It was fabulous, and we were able to visit another distillery our last day to see a rather different way of making whisky.  We paid for the tour and tasting at the Auchentoshan distillery on our way back to the airport, and it was worth the price of entry, as the guide was extremely knowledgeable.  Those whiskies take more of their flavor from the casks and barrels where the spirit ages (either American bourbon casks or Spanish sherry wine barrels).  We’re learning to spend the time tasting the various flavors – and really, you need to, unless you are accustomed to gulping firewater.

Enjoying our wee tasting.

Enjoying our wee tasting.

Justin is demonstrating how to give yourself "monkeyshoulder" which is an actual condition that the whisky workers have after moving all of the wet barley around.

Justin is demonstrating how to give yourself “monkeyshoulder” which is an actual condition that the whisky workers have after moving all of the wet barley around.

We’ll be back.

Why yes, that man in the woods wore a Tyrolean!

17 Feb

Wikipedia notes that a Tyrolean hat is:

a type of fedora hat named for the Tyrol in the Alps. It is essentially the shape known as the trilby. Tyrolean hats are made of felt, traditionally having a corded hatband and a feather on the side as trim.

And why does this matter, you ask?  Well, it’s one thing to see a fedora on a nice Shriner back in the US who is telling you about the good work they do for a children’s hospital, and quite another to see one on a man who appears suddenly from a cozy-looking cottage in the middle of the woods, in a snow-blanketed landscape, speaking German with you and insisting that he take your picture.  You blink a few times and wonder if it’s real.

Last weekend, on a quick trip to see Vienna, Austria, we took a train to the Alpen town of Semmering, south-west of Vienna, to cross-country ski for a day.  Our morning had already had a few adrenaline-induced charges (the train station platforms were not terribly self-explanatory, and we had to do some searching before finding an outfit to rent cross-country gear), but finally we were set up in traditional skis (no skate skis available) and took off on the trail.  Few people were out, and after a few kilometers, we came across a log cabin, with a fire and all of the window shutters wide open.  We stopped, had a drink of water, and pulled out the camera.  To our surprise, a friendly Austrian man in his Tyrolean (or Alpen) hat came out to chat with us (in German) and insist on taking our pictures.  I was so focused on remembering German that I forgot to take a picture of him – he must have skied to his place, as there really was no other access.  He told us he owned one side of the property that was split by the cross-country ski trail, and it appeared that he spent a lot of time greeting people who ski up past his place.  It was definitely a highlight for us.

Our new friend in the Tyrolean hat insisted on taking pictures of us - I just wish I had taken a picture of him!

Our new friend in the Tyrolean hat insisted on taking pictures of us – I just wish I had taken a picture of him!

Cozy does not begin to describe this little abode!

Cozy does not begin to describe this little abode!

After approximately 130 turns where we would decide if we should keep going up the never-ending hill, we finally gave in and turned around.

After approximately 130 turns where we would decide if we should keep going up the never-ending hill, we finally gave in and turned around.

We spent most of the afternoon out skiing, primarily discussing our interpretation of the “trail” information and whether or not the trail was an out and back or a loop.  After a never-ending uphill slog, we decided that the trail must have been an out and back, and turned around to ski downhill.  For me, I practiced snow plow until my legs were jelly – Justin swooped along like he had never stopped downhill skiing years ago.  Back in Semmering, we had a very long lunch that would make our Spanish friends proud (and it was complete with 3 different hot alcohol drinks – hot chocolate with rum, Gluhwein and hot tea with brandy to warm us up!).  Completely refreshed, we made our way back to the train that would bring us the 180 km back into Vienna.

Many of the houses in Semmering used solar panels.

Many of the houses in Semmering used solar panels.

The following day in Vienna, our goals were to see the open air market, sample lots of chocolate, and experience the famous music scene.  We did the first two items on our list easy enough, and then finally ducked into a music store to purchase a compilation cd set of the famous musicians of Austria.  Our music collection is now graced by Mozart, Strauss, Haydn and Schubert.  The food in Vienna was fantastic, especially a dinner we had in a small restaurant recommended by our hotel that was out of the touristy center.

Temperatures were cold, with a blustery wind.  We took any and all opportunities to taste chocolate.

Temperatures were cold, with a blustery wind. We took any and all opportunities to taste chocolate.

The golden horns must be functional to keep the horses' ears warm, but there was a lot of eye rolling - we're not sure the horses liked being dressed up as cows.

The golden horns must be functional to keep the horses’ ears warm, but there was a lot of eye rolling – we’re not sure the horses liked being dressed up as cows.

...and after a while, the disagreement escalated to a lot of finger-pointing...

…and after a while, the disagreement escalated to a lot of finger-pointing…

The Naschmarkt was one of the best open air markets we had been to, as it was not too crowded.  We enjoyed the cultural diversity, including more eastern European foods.

The Naschmarkt was one of the best open air markets we had been to, as it was not too crowded. We enjoyed the cultural diversity, including eastern European foods that were completely new to us.

Sauerkraut is made from green cabbage and then fermented in enormous wooden barrels.  This fresh stuff looking amazing, although Justin gave the barrels a wide berth.

Sauerkraut is made from green cabbage and then fermented in enormous wooden barrels. This fresh stuff looked amazing, although Justin gave the barrels a wide berth.

Car2Go is the same car sharing program that we have in Austin!

Car2Go is the same car sharing program that we have in Austin!

Vienna has its share of modern buildings, often nestled next to distinctive historical buildings.  This is the Haas House, located a stone's throw from St. Stephen's Cathedral.

Vienna has its share of modern buildings, often nestled next to distinctive historical buildings. This is the Haas House, located a stone’s throw from St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

This picture was my favorite of those I took of St. Stephen's - unfortunately a good part of the building was under restoration.  Many of the historical structures we have seen in Europe have been involved in these types of reconstruction or restoration.

This picture was my favorite of those I took of St. Stephen’s – unfortunately a good part of the building was under restoration. Many of the historical structures we have seen in Europe have been involved in these types of reconstruction or restoration.

We thought about renting bikes and exploring the city that way, but opted to walk since the zone we had targeted was in a limited area.  However, we always notice the bike culture of a place, though!

No track stands allowed!

No track stands allowed!

Curiously, the rider appears to be sidesaddle.

It’s probably better for your knees to not ride bow-legged.

We fully intended to have a beer here, but never made it!

We fully intended to have a beer here, but never made it.

Wir machten viel Spaß!

Magic Kings

8 Jan

Somehow, another holiday season has come and gone…even in Spain, where the season lasts through the most important day for the children – el Día de los Reyes Magos on January 6th. This year’s el Día de los Reyes Magos was going to be a quiet one for us – we had just returned from a trip to the boat and were looking forward to a day at home that included going for a run, eating our Roscón de Reyes, and lots of reading.

roscon

Imagine our surprise when the Reyes Magos turned up – a true surprise – the house was a mess, and I was demonstrating yet another fashion faux pas with red knickers and black cycling socks!  Jokes aside, we were super happy to see our friends Begoña and Javier and quite overwhelmed with the goodies they brought to remind us of the fantastic foods in Spain.

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The best gifts are those of great friends (but amazing organic Spanish cheese, jamón and a gran reserva from Rioja rate a distant but notable second!).

 

¡Feliz Thanksgiving – have a batata pie!

22 Nov

My favorite American holiday is Thanksgiving* – like last year, we are in Madrid for the holiday.  Last year, we celebrated at a Mexican restaurant here in Madrid who made a pretty good Thanksgiving dinner, but this year, we are super fortunate to get to spend time with some American friends who have invited us for dinner. Life is good.

In the spirit of the season, I thought it would be nice to make a pumpkin pie with the one can of organic pumpkin that we were sent from the US (this is a very special can, as I have not found canned pumpkin in Spain yet) for Justin to take into work to share a bit of Thanksgiving with his coworkers.  Last week, Justin thought so, too.  However, yesterday, he decided that maybe one pie would not be enough for his work.  I also realized that my kitchen arsenal was not properly equipped for pies, so in addition to improvising pumpkin, I improvised pans.

Luckily, I’m not a perfectionist when it comes to food – I want it to taste good, but it’s never going to make me cry if I can’t create something as beautiful as the cooks and chefs on HGTV.  In fact, I’d rather have a story to remember why things were a bit different (or so I tell myself).

So, he’s bringing in a pumpkin pie and a sweet potato pie.  I was able to find sweet potatoes (not the yellow garnets that my aunt always raves about, but “batatas“).  The pumpkin pie was cooked in a slightly too small shallow cake pan that my grandma gave me, and the sweet potato pie was cooked in an enormous, brand new silicone cake pan that caused the pie to swell up and engulf the crust during the baking.  They’re not perfect, but perfectly recognizable as pies – plus Justin has instructions to use the can of whipped cream ad libitum (or until his thumb gives out)!

Pumpkin pie with walnut streusel.

Sweet potato pie that I have renamed “batata pie”.

Since the pumpkin pie was cooked in too small a pan, I *HAD* to make a mini pie with the leftovers (and we quite happily ate it last night!).  Hopefully Justin’s coworkers enjoy them today.

Happy Thanksgiving!

* I am referring to the spirit of the holiday for giving thanks for family, friends, health, and the amazingness of life….I try not to think too much about the history of the US and colonization of an already occupied land (and everything that entailed), since that would be a bit of a downer…

Francesinha (or gravy on our pizza)

8 Nov

We were in Porto (or technically, Gaia) recently on our boat, and we never miss the opportunity to eat stupidly good pizza at the local pizza place, no more than a stone’s throw from the boat.  This time, we opted to order one of the specialities – “Francesinha da Forneria”.  We had noticed that most people order a calzone that had a brown sauce, and after asking the waitress (in Spanish…our Portuguese leaves a lot to be desired!) about the dish, we decided to go for it.

When the expected calzone showed up, complete with brown sauce, we really had no idea what to expect – but it turned out to be a carnivore’s dream.  The gravy was tasty, although I think I would need to feel anemic before attempting to eat that much meat again.

Francesinha da Forneria.  Lots of meat in the dough, covered with cheese and gravy.

Curiously, the pizza that Justin normally orders ALSO came with the interesting gravy, and it wasn’t too bad, surprisingly!  Different…

An unexpected touch. This pizza does not normally come with gravy, but perhaps we looked a bit ambitious?

After a bit of searching on the internet, it turns out that “Franceshinha” means “little Frenchie” and refers to meaty sandwiches served with cheese and beer gravy on top – see more information here.  It’s typical of the Porto/Gaia region of Portugal, and we can attest to its popularity with the rest of the restaurant patrons.

Another adventure in eating!

Spain Road Trip 3

2 Nov

The last part of a whirlwind trip through Andalucía and back into Madrid…

Tammy and I finished off our day touring the white hill towns in Granada.  As is the norm with Granada (at least for us), it took an extra 90 minutes or so to find the hotel, and I fully expect to get at least one friendly letter from the city asking me to send them money since I was probably driving where I was not supposed to.  But…we found the hotel, checked in, and then headed out to find some of the really good tapas that Granada is famous for.  We ended up finding place #1 – a gritty bar that I insisted we try since there looked to be “real” people inside – the tapa was some potato chips alongside a few pieces of cheese drizzled with olive oil (this tapa became known as “the oily cheese”).  We left.  Tammy chose place #2 – a swanky wine bar that took a while for the tapas to show…but it was definitely worth it – the two of us (mostly vegetarians) each gobbled up a mini hamburger with fancy sauce and swilled our delicious wine.  Pretty soon, we had decided we needed to see what the next tapa might be, so we ordered another glass of wine and were rewarded with a pretty little open-faced sandwich with pork and a green pepper….just as tasty!  We were convinced that the food would be excellent and opted to order a great rare tuna salad.  The place was a find – Puerta del Carmen.

The next day, we toured the Alhambra – the third time I had been, but the first time I was actually able to tour the palaces.  It was lovely, to say the least.  After our tour, we made our way back to our hotel to fetch the car.  Getting out of Granada was even more of an adventure than getting to the hotel – I think I was driving on sidewalks, while Tammy tried to hide under her seat.  But – we made it out of the city, somehow, and we drove back to Sevilla to return the rental car and hop the AVE back to Madrid.

Back in Madrid, Justin got to play tourist with us, so we visited a few museums, went spelunking for lunch in El Molar, and did a lot more eating and drinking…to show Tammy what we’ve learned about Spain!

It was a super visit.

Spain Road Trip 2

30 Oct

After a day and a half in Sevilla, Tammy and I rented a car to drive to Granada, via some of the white hill towns of Andalucía.  At the rental car place, the guy mentioned to me that I really should have my international driver’s permit on me when driving – this was something I had inadvertently left behind.  Both Justin and I have one, but in the last 15 months, we have never been told to have this or asked for this – so we had assumed it was a scheme by the local AAA back in Austin to make a little pocket change!  However, apparently not, as Tammy found in Rick Steve’s guide that technically, all drivers should carry one, in case they are stopped by an official, but it is not required to get a rental car.  Alright then.

We headed towards our first stop – Arcos de la Frontera, after putting the name of the town into the GPS and hitting “Go!”.  We soon found ourselves driving on what Rick called, “a dangerous, narrow road full of curves”.  It was, but we saw perhaps 2 other vehicles and were treated to some fantastic scenery (well, I was mostly trying to keep the car on the narrow road).  The route probably took a bit longer than the suggested toll route, but paid off in a “road less traveled” sort of way.

Our first destination: Arcos de la Frontera, where we wandered the streets, found an artist’s workshop, and bought some more nun cookies!

Winding up for our walking tour with Rick Steves in Arcos de la Frontera.

Magnificent entryway for the Church of Santa Maria.

At the Church of Santa Maria in Arcos, we learned about an old design in the rocks in front of the building where to this day, some people still do exorcisms!

Driving in Arcos de la Frontera was not for the typical American car, unless you wanted to bring home some authentic Spanish rock gouges.

Here is the window where you ring a bell to buy cookies from the cloistered nuns. Unlike Seville, we had to do the negotiation and selection of cookies with a real-life sister.

After successfully buying cookies through the convent turn-table, we had to go sample them!

We stopped by the workshop of Señor Andres Oviedo Vidal and enjoyed perusing his tile work (he did tell me I could take the picture, although it doesn’t quite seem so, does it?).

The view from the tiny city center in Arcos de la Frontera.

We continued on, and after stopping by a farm where we bought olive oil and some wine that *hopefully* will be good (we did not get to taste it, and since I have very little experience as a translator, I somehow agreed that we would go ahead and buy some of the wine…oops), we found ourselves in Zahara de la Sierra.  The town was spectacular, perched in the mountains overlooking a reservoir.  We started a short hike up to the very top of the mountain to an old watchtower, but our stomachs got the best of us when we realized it would be a 30-45 minute effort…and decided to find lunch instead.

In Zahara, there is a reservoir off to one direction, and then the city in the hills nestled in with old buildings off to another direction.

After we climbed up to Zahara, we were rewarded with a lovely view of a nearby reservoir.

Sopa de tomate…this was not what we expected tomato soup to be, but it was delicious!

After lunch, which starred two delicious surprises (carrots with pesto and a bread salad dish that had been named “sopa de tomate”), we took off down the mountain to find Granada…

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