Cruising through Córdoba

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When we originally planned our time in Andalucia, we only allotted one night to Córdoba. Neither one of us had heard very much about this city, so we decided just to check it out briefly. Once we arrived there and started walking around, however, we realized that we could have happily spent much more time there.

Córdoba feels a bit like a maze — made up of narrow, winding streets that seem to snake in all directions. The sidewalks are maybe one-foot wide, so you have to flatten yourself against the buildings every time a car rolls by, which is more often than you might think. All of the buildings in Córdoba are white-washed, but feature colorful doorways, windows and tilework. Inside of many of the buildings are the city’s famous inner patio gardens — private retreats that we tried to catch a glimpse of whenever possible. We both really enjoyed just wandering the streets with no real purpose or destination.

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The one sight we made a real effort to see was the Mezquita, a former mosque turned Roman Catholic cathedral in the center of town. The combination of Moorish & Catholic styes made for some truly outstanding architecture.

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Granada

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We had a great stay in Granada. We arrived on Saturday afternoon, during siesta (which lasts from 3:00 to 5:00 and turns the city into a ghost town). After finding a nice “pension” near one of the city’s main squares, we went out for a stroll to check out the city’s main cathedral. The enormous building has a white arched ceiling held up by a series of columns (as pictured below), and a generous amount of stained glass.

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Afterward, we walked down the city’s main shopping drag in search for the English bookstore listed in our guidebook, but unfortunately it was closed. The walk was great for people-watching though, and we saw plenty of examples of a new European fashion craze that Abby will be writing about soon.

On Sunday, we got up early to check out Granada’s main attraction: the Alhambra, a large palace / fortress complex built by the Nasrid dynasty in the 13th and 14th century. The main sections are the Generalife (a large garden), the Palacio de Carlos V (an large Renaissance building with a circular courtyard), the Alcazaba (a set of ramparts and a large watchtower), and the Palacio Nazaríes , which is the main attraction. The Palacio Nazaríes is considered by some to be the most impressive Islamic structure in all of Europe, a statement that we certainly can’t argue with. The palace had room after room of arches and ornately carved stone walls and wooden doors. It was truly impressive.

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Out the window was a beautiful garden.

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We spent about three and a half hours total exploring the Alhambra, more time than we’ve spent at any other site on the trip, and finally left satisfied but exhausted. It’s impossible to show the real splendor of the place in a couple blog pictures, but take our word for it — it’s a sight not to be missed!

Aside from the sights, the other part of Granada that Abby and I really enjoyed was tapas. Granada takes pride in being one of the last few cities in Spain where it is still customary for bar owners to serve a small complimentary snack with each drink order (bars in most other cities charge nowadays). For example, when we each ordered a glass of sangria, the bar also brought out a couple pieces of bread covered with a tasty crab spread. Different tapas come out with each round of drinks, apparently in some pre-set order defined by the bar. The patron does not get to choose what they get. Perhaps this makes it easier and more economical, since bars can pre-make a bunch of small plates and hand them out as the drink orders come in. In any case, it’s an interesting and wonderful concept.

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Observations on Coffee in Italy

(yes, i know this is a little late)

As an owner of an espresso machine and red-blooded Seattlite, I was very interested to see how the Italians drink their coffee. Over the course of our stay, we had the opportunity to try many cups of coffee at a variety of establishments. Here are a few things we observed…

Espresso = 0,85 – This is the standard price for the most common coffee drink we saw in Italy, a single shot of espresso served at a stand-up bar counter in a small ceramic cup with a matching saucer and demitasse spoon. The price is nearly 100% consistent across the board, though the premium to sit down while drinking your coffee varies and can double the cost of the drink. Adding a shot of Sambuca (as we saw somebody do) increases the price as well.

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Multitasking baristas – It’s common to see a barista making 3-4 shots of espresso at a time, simultaneously attending to a bunch of customers. Since classic manual machines (portafilters, tampers, …) are the norm and typically deliver two shots simultaneously to two separate cups, their job is a little easier than it sounds. At the autogrille (tollway restaurant, picture below), the coffees were coming out 4×4 and I had one in front of me before even ordering it!

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Efficient milk re-use – Unlike in America, it’s common for coffee shops to steam a bunch of milk ahead of time, then use the pre-steamed milk for macchiatos and cappuccinos as they’re ordered. This makes it possible to serve a milk-based drink nearly as quickly as it does to serve a straight espresso. There’s no waiting in line for your morning drink – it’s set down in front of you nearly immediately after you order it! Milk drinks are rarely ordered after lunch.

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“Bar” – Italians typically enjoy their espresso at a “bar”. These “bars” are not fancy lounges, dance clubs, or pubs. The typical “bar” is a place where people go for drinks and snacks, which almost always serves both coffee and beer.

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American drinks – Cafe Lattes are in fact sold in Italy, though they do not seem to be ordered very often (unlike their cousin, the Cappuccino). All drinks are small (no larger than 6 oz or so), and there is no such thing as a 2% triple-shot venti caramel frappacino. As far as we could tell, drip coffee doesn’t exist here either, though Cafe Americanos (espresso + water) are available. Other than Granita (a thick and potent cross between espresso and italian ice), we didn’t see any iced coffee drinks either.

Nescafe – No matter what anybody says, this is not espresso. It’s a disgrace to coffee in general. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s even legal here. I was only served this once.

Update from France: Nice not as nice as Arles

See our gallery of photos tagged with “nice”.

See our gallery of photos tagged with “arles”.

Following a long, slow train ride from Milan, we arrived in Nice with the mission of finding a hotel room. We consulted our usual go-to guide — Rick Steves — but found that all of his recommendations within our price range were already full. So, long story short, when left to our own devices we ended up in a small, rather seedy hotel that would definitely not make the short-list of Nice’s A-list visitors.

After dropping off our bags, we walked along the beach promenade, explored the Hotel Negresco, and then found a place in the Nice Etoile neighborhood to get a nice dinner that included the requisite Niçoise salad. The next morning, we walked up to the wonderful Marc Chagall museum, which was definitely the highlight of our visit to Nice. It is a small museum, for which Chagall specifically created 17 beautiful murals. It also featured some of his stained-glass work and an outdoor mosaic. It was a really beautiful museum.

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By early afternoon, we were back on the train headed for Arles down in the Provence region of France. Arles is a 45-minute train ride from Marseille, but feels like a different world from the very industrial port city. Again, we arrived without a hotel reservation, but did have a list of recommendations from our Rick Steves guidebook. Lucky for us the first few places we visited were full, because the third (or fourth?) place was amazing and just what we were looking for. We ended up staying at Hotel Le Cloitre, which is run by a delightful couple who decorated the place themselves in a French-country-chic style that I just loved. Our room was quiet, comfortable and just the style that you would expect from the town that so inspired Van Gogh. (Arles is where Van Gogh lived for about two years, during which he painted some of his most well known pieces.)

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Our two days in Arles were totally relaxing and provided a welcome break from the hurried pace of our prior week. We had a few great meals, including a wonderful lunch of tartine sandwiches at the local hangout La Cuisine de Comptoir. We also encountered another magnificent rainstorm, which we sat out with a digestif underneath the awning of Le Cafe la Nuit, which provided the inspiration for Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night painting, but is now recognized as a bit of a tourist trap in Arles. Another activity that we enjoyed in Arles was a self-guided walking tour that takes you to various spots throughout the town where Van Gogh had painted. They have these permanent easels set up with a reproduction of the painting so that you can see the current-day view next to what Van Gogh saw and drew inspiration from over 100 ears ago. Pretty cool.

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Florence

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After three great days of driving around the Tuscan hill towns, we returned our Fiat to Siena and took the next bus up to Florence. As we’ve started doing more often now, we arrived without having any accommodations lined up. Instead – we found a neighborhood in our guidebook that looked appealing (in this case “Oltrarno”), and then walked over there and checked out the places recommended in our guidebook. The hostel (the cheapest option) looked uninviting, so we went with a nearby budget hotel run by the church instead. It was great – our room had a large window overlooking a courtyard, and even a small loft. Not bad for a two star hotel!

We enjoyed the neighborhood a lot as well. Oltrarno is situated on the south side of the river that runs through Florence, across from the north side which contains most of the sights (and tourists). What the neighborhood lacks in sights, it makes up for in local restaurants and bars. It even has a morning market in its main square. Definitely a good place to stay!

As far as sightseeing, we did the usual Florence stuff. We checked out the Duomo (an enormous church with an impressive white façade), as well as the Uffizi gallery, a large Renaissance art museum. We also spent a lot of time simply wandering around town, people watching, and looking into the windows of fancy stores. With only a day and a half in town, it was an admittedly brief visit, but still a great time.

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24 Hours in Milan

See our gallery of photos tagged with “milan”.

After Florence, Abby and I did a brief one-night stop in Milan. We had heard great things about the city from Abby’s cousin Allison (reigning “What is it??” champion) who studied there last fall and decided to check it out on our own. Upon arrival we called around and found a room at the best hotel in Milan:

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OK… we didn’t actually stay at a “5 star L” hotel in Montenapoleone, and no that’s not our Ferrari, but we did stay at a two star hotel named “The Best” near the train station which worked out quite well.

After checking in, we set out for some crazy sightseeing. We took the metro into the center of town and saw Milan’s Duomo (an enormous white Gothic church), both inside and out. We climbed 170 steep steps to the top of the building where we had even better views of the flying buttresses as well as sweeping views of the city.

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Afterward, we walked across the square to the famous shopping mall where we saw stores full of items we couldn’t afford and then spun around three times on the mosaic bull on the ground for good luck. Note the position of Abby’s foot. It’s customary to spin around on the bull’s manhood, and there is even a handy indentation on the floor there to make it easier to do.

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We then took a train out to a student-filled canal-lined neighborhood in search of Appertivo, one of the best things we discovered about Northern Italy. Appertivo is a happy hour deal where bars put out large spreads of pasta, meats, cheeses, fruit, rice, etc. and include the buffet spread in the cost of a drink. For example, you’d pay 6 euro for a cocktail and unlimited trips for food. Definitely a great deal for students, cheapskates, and budget-councious travelers.

By 10:00 we were exhausted and headed back to The Best Hotel in Milan for a good night’s sleep.