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Hey, ho and away we go! Donkey riding in the Douro

The original choice for our Fall vacation was the Exodus trip Walking the Prosecco Hills, but when we went to book it, they had only one spot left. So we switched to Portugal: Walking and Wine. This was classed as a Premium trip, meaning 4- and 5-star hotels, and was rated a walking level 1, suggesting easier walking than our previous level 2 Exodus trips. We were a bit concerned that October in the Douro region could be somewhat rainy, but we figured we’d just prepare for that possibility and hope for the best.

tsy

The area we’d be visiting

Day 1: The Canadian invasion

A definite plus for this trip was the direct flights from Toronto to Porto, even though the choices were two budget airlines: Air Transat or Air Canada Rouge. We went with Rouge, as it had a better itinerary.

Though it was (Canadian) Thanksgiving weekend, things went really smoothly at Pearson: Baggage drop, check-in, boarding… We even had time (before boarding) for an unusually good airport meal at Lee’s (as in Chef Susur Lee). The flight itself took off on time and actually arrived early. Rouge does have older planes without back-of-seat screens (there’s an app you can use to watch movies on your tablet), but at least we were in a row of just two seats, on the side, which was nice.

We had a bit of wait until our Exodus transport would show up (timed for the British flight scheduled for a couple hours later), so we had some lunch and picked up a local SIM card: $30 for 5 GB of data, baby! Great service at the Vodaphone booth, as well.

The British flight ended up delayed by an extra hour, but by then the Exodus people were there anyway and agreed to drive us and one other person who’d already arrived to the hotel at the original time. We faced a long, slow lineup to check in at the hotel, but once we got to our room, we found that it was fine.

The group meeting was at 5:00. We met our two guides, Ricardo and Luis, and the rest of the group. We’d been expecting mostly Brits, as on previous tours, but of the other 14, only three were British (one of them currently residing in California, which left her with wicked jet lag). There was an Australian couple. And everybody else was Canadian! 11 strong. Other than the Brits and us, everyone else had been doing other touring around Portugal before joining the walking trip. (We did have an extra two days tacked onto the end.)

No organized dinner this evening, so we walked Porto’s twisty streets and found a small (literally, the width of an aisle) tapas restaurant to eat in. We tried a few different dishes that were all good, especially the goat cheese melt, and each had a glass of white vino verde. Jean also had a bit of port with dessert.

Church in Porto (photos by Jean, unless otherwise noted)

Day 2: Walking in the valley

In the morning after breakfast (breakfast was included with the hotel each day, all of them offering a very nice buffet), we left our hotel for the Meso Frio region, a couple of hours’ drive away. Our first stop was a coffee shop, and then we embarked upon one of the more strenuous hikes of the trip, in terms of elevation change. (In length it was 7 km.) It was still easier than many on the other Exodus trips we’d been on, but a vigorous start to this trip. The day was gorgeous.

The scenery wasn’t super spectacular on this one, but we saw a lot of agriculture products growing (walnuts, kale, lemons, grapes…), and some sheep.

We had a bag lunch on the trail, then after the hike (which was a definite challenge for some in the group), we were driven to our new hotel. It was in a vineyard, and was very fine.

Not exactly roughing it in Portugal

Dinner was at the hotel. The food was palatable but not outstanding. It was becoming clear this would be a fun group, though.

Day 3: Going to market to learn about port

This day’s walk was only about 4 km, and all on winery grounds. It was another beautiful day, and we got some great views of the just astonishing terraces of the Douro region. They are just everywhere, and so elaborate!

Terraces in the background

And terraces in the foreground (photo by Helen)

Mid-point through the hike, Ricardo said that those who wanted could go off on an extra little jog to see something special. Many on the trip thought he was saying that it was a market we were going to—though that was a bit confusing, as it was in kind of an isolated, rural place that required some climbing: How were people going to get their wares up there?

Then we arrived a rectangular rock. What Ricardo had been actually saying, in his Portuguese accent, was that we were going to see a marker. Basically, a stone signpost demarcating the official Douro wine region. The placement of these–there are some 300 in total–were an important phase in the development of this wine industry. But a lot of the group was in giggles at their thought that we were going to market.

Ricardo and the marker of the Douru region (photo by Helen)

Our lunch at the end of the hike was at a winery called Quinta do Tedo. It was a buffet with cheese, quiche, cod cakes, chutney, and of course, wine.

We then got a tour and a bit of a primer on the port-making process. At this particular, relatively small, winery, they still used foot crushing for the port-destined grapes. (At least, I don’t think he was kidding about that—our guide here definitely was a kidder.) Though it should be noted that they use the same grapes for port as they do for red wine—just process them differently. Tawny port is aged in much smaller barrels than ruby, imparting more of the wood taste into the drink. Vintage ports are made only in exceptional years. They keep aging in the bottle, but must be drunk pretty quickly once opened. The non-vintage do not age after bottling, but once opened, can be kept for up to year without deterioration.

We then tasted the port: A rose (a type I’d never had before), a tawny, and a ruby. All of them were good and smooth, but the rose was the sweetest, and the tawny was my favorite overall.

Our next stop was the Douro museum, dedicated to the history of wine-making in the region. We got an interesting guided tour of it. Wine-making in the past was extremely labour-intensive!

Back at our hotel, we found a bunch of MG’s in the parking lot. Sadly, they weren’t for us. An MG hobby group were holding a meeting here.

Just a few of the MGs in the parking lot

For dinner that night, we drove into the nearby (15 minutes) town. Big group dinners are always a challenge, but this restaurant managed it pretty well. Ricardo warned us that the entrees were quite large and best shared. Jean was insistent on having veal stew, while I tend not to eat veal, so I shared a salmon dinner with one of the singles on the trip. It was prepared very nicely, and served with good potatoes and cabbage/carrot mix. Jean did a masterful job on his generous serving of veal stew.

Day 4: Vertigo on a rail line, and death at a funeral

We were moving on again, but a full day of activities before arriving at the new hotel. Today’s hike was the longest of the trip, at 10 km, but was mostly flat: a former rail line. The day was once again gorgeous.

Turns out we needn’t have worried about October weather in Portugal

There wasn’t too much drama on this trail, except that to save time, we were encouraged to cross a bridge with openings looking down on a fairly big drop. There was a railing and all, so I thought it would be OK, but once I got on it, the vertigo set in and the heart started racing. I couldn’t get across it fast enough, so every time the group stopped (probably just twice) was kind of torturous. But we all survived it without any obvious panic attacks. (One group member, Carolyn, did so by taking an alternate route down and around the bridge instead, with the second guide.)

The scary bridge (photo by Helen)

After the walk, we were driven to Casa de Mateus, a beautiful property belonging to a member of Portugal’s royal family. Its association with the Mateus bubbly rose wine from Portugal is tenuous: that winery just got permission to use the image of the estate in its branding.

We got a tour of the chapel and the lovely rooms full of art, including the very impressive library, then had some time to wander on our own through the beautiful gardens.

One of the more stunning pieces in the Mateus collection

The goal here was to make a mini Versaille

Our next stop was at the waterfalls in Alvao Natural Park, but they really aren’t that impressive this time of year. Not much water falling.

A more interesting view than the waterfall

Dinner that night was at our new hotel, which was also lovely, and, it turned out, served some of the best food we had on the trip (goat cheese on croute, sea bass or lamb main, creme brulee… All very well prepared). Making it easier to forgive the sometimes choppy service. One thing we learned on this trip was that vinho verde comes in red and rose as well as white. We shared a bottle of the red with the Australian couple. It’s definitely unusual—tastes kind of like a fresh white, but with extra tannin—but when else are you going to be able to drink it? [Red green wine: very Canadian!]

The group was in great spirits, and one point everyone within proximity was in hysterical laughter over Cheryl’s descriptions of scenes from the movie Death at a Funeral—even though most of us had never seen it. It was just contagious laughter. That only accelerated when her acting out of one scene had her backing into another table. Fortunately, the couple sitting there were good sports about it. (I guess I need to watch Death at Funeral now. It is on Netflix. I was warned to watch the British version, not the American.)

Day 5: Winery, oui oui oui! Octopus, non non non!

Today’s walk was through another winery, Quinta das Escomoeiras, which offered longer and more challenging terrain than our previous winery walk. And it was lovely weather again.

We then got a tour by the winery owner, who purchased the vineyard 24 years ago, after a career as an economist. It required a lot of rehabilitation before becoming a going concern. He explained where the name vinho verdo (green wine) came from. In the early years, they planted the grape vines too close together, and therefore didn’t produce a very good quality product. It was low alcohol and actually had a bit of a green tinge. They improved the process and the product later on, but the name stuck.

As vinho verde is a food wine, instead of a tasting it on its own, we had the opportunity to try the white, rose, and red with a delicious buffet lunch. It was a leisurely meal on the patio, with a distinct feeling amongst the group that we could just stay here all day.

Roughing it in the bush

Our favourite wine was the rose, which I considered purchasing, given that I don’t know that we can get anything but white vinho verde back home? (A Google search says that yes, I can.) But ultimately I decided against carting a bottle of wine around for the rest of the trip, and instead bought a small bottle of dried stevia. (Fernando also grew a number of herbs on his property.)

We were eventually convinced to get back into the vans for a ride back to the hotel, with a little stop at a grocery store on the way. We agreed to go into town for dinner this evening. It was a small, family-run restaurant (not a big town, so not sure what else they’d have there), with a somewhat limited menu, but fine for us (and not so much for those who aren’t into fish, seafood, or pork). Jean, I, and Cheryl, sitting next to us all decided to try one of the specialties: octopus in olive oil. It arrived in the form of a large tentacle on the plate (with veggies on the side).

Helen, sitting opposite us, could hardly stand it. She was totally turned off by the look of this food, and was facing three plates of it! (It was actually quite tasty and tender.) Unfortunate, but kind of funny, from our perspective.

I believe that it’s about this point in the trip that we started doing singalongs in the van. (Wine might have played a role in all this.) One song that kept making everyone laugh was “Donkey Riding” (which I think of as a Great Big Sea tune, but it’s actually an old sea shanty). Apparently some people in Alberta used to sing that song in school. “It’s so stupid!” said Cheryl. “Was you ever in Quebec, riding on a donkey? What…? Why did they teach us that?”

Some questions have no answers.

Another one, courtesy Jean, was “Chevalier de la table ronde”, with everyone joining in on the “Oui, oui, oui!” / “Non, non, non!” parts. Kind of an appropos song for this wine-soaked journey.

Day 6: A little rain and a near-death experience in California

The first rain of the trip occurred overnight, but mostly petered out by the time we started the day’s 8 km walk, along a waterway. There are a few tricky bits through some water-covered parts, but nothing we couldn’t manage (though a couple of group members did opt to skip this one, and Helen got a minor injury from slipping on a rock).

The waterway walk

Afterward, we drove up to a chapel on a (small) mountain that we’d been able to see from our hotel. Driving up there, on twisty roads near the edge, Caroline rather casually told us about how she’d been on similar roads in California when the bus driver had a massive heart attack and died, causing the bus to lurch over the edge. Thanks to fast action from one passenger, greater disaster was averted, and everyone ultimately managed to evacuate with only minor injuries.

But I can see why Carolyn isn’t so fond of heights and was rather tense during this drive.

In less death-defying news, the clouds had cleared enough by this time so we were able to take in the views from there. (Those who skipped the hike also joined us here.)

The chapel

The views

Given a choice between the hotel and the octopus restaurant, the group almost unanimously selected the hotel. Jean and I both had a duck with rice dish called arroz de pato that I’d like to find a recipe for. (And also of the caldo verde we had a few times—a kale-based soup that is really nice.)

Day 7: “An air of melancholy has settled over the group”

The morning before leaving, Jean took some lovely photos at our hotel. People were a bit more subdued this day, as the trip was drawing to a close. “An air of melancholy has settled over the group,” Carolyn observed.

We headed back to Porto, and the original hotel. On arrival, we put our luggage in storage, and Ricardo gave us a bit of a city tour: the train station, Cafe Majestic, Se de Porto, Dom Luis bridge… We crossed the bridge and ended up in Vila Nova de Gaia, the sister city.

This is where all the famous port is made: Taylor’s, Graham’s, Offley, Fonseca, Sandeman… Here we got another tour of one of them (not the biggest name), which provided a somewhat clearer explanation of the whole process than we’d received in Quinta do Tedo. (One more tidbit: late vintage ports are those they had thought might become vintage, but then decide aren’t quite good enough, so they stop the aging process by adding alcohol. So they become another that last a good while after opening. And are generally pretty nice ports.) Here they made white port as well as the other types. We warned that extra dry white port—still isn’t what most people would consider a dry wine.

We tasted a white and a tawny here. In this case we preferred the white.

We then had free time til dinner, so Jean and I wandered off in search of lunch. It was very busy in that area, but we did eventually find a recommended place to eat—a bit tricky to locate using Google because it was upstairs. Almost as soon as we sat down, we were offered white port. Sure, why not. The food was also good, a few tapas followed by a dish called Bacalhau à Brás (I think) that is quite popular in these parts—a mix of cod, potato, and egg.

We did some random ambling before checking in to the hotel and meeting the group for dinner, which was at a restaurant across the street. And was kind of a shambles! Orders mixed up. Bills incorrect. Timing way off. We ended up with two mini-bottles of wine after ordering one, and I believe we were over-charged for appetizers. But at least the food tasted OK.

We said our good-byes to everyone at the end, and then we had two days on our own.

Day 8: History, architecture, and a zombie hurricane

To start, we changed hotels, to one that was a little cheaper than the one included in our tour. It turned out very well. The room was a little smaller, but the location somewhat more convenient, and it had bathrobes! (I’m a sucker for getting a free bathrobe.)

We took a little stop at the local McDonald’s, which seems wrong, but this was very attractive one. (Also, the coffee there is pretty good, and I needed the restroom.)

Not your average McDonald’s

But the Ribeira / Vila Nova de Gaia is a very crowded area of town, so this day we decided to head to the Malagaia area.

Porto's tiled Church

Jean took a few photos on the way. This tiling is very characteristic of Porto

We visited the free Museum of Photography which, apart from exhibiting some photographs, also showed photographic equipment from years past, which was quite interesting!

Photography Museum

Photos in one minute! It’s easy! (That was a bit of an exaggeration, if you read the fine print…)

For lunch, we happened upon a Michelin-recommended restaurant that gave us one of the best meals of the trip. Highlights were Jean’s sea bass and my strawberry soup with basil ice cream for dessert.

Carpaccio of Pinnaple was terrific!

This pineapple dessert with port ice cream was also nice

Jean then agreed to go on a tour of the Casa de Musica, or music hall, that is a fairly recent addition to Porto. No photos, but it’s an architecturally interesting building with all sorts of nooks and crannies to tour—VIP rooms, babysitting area, floating bars in the window, acoustically perfect concert halls… Definitely worth the 8 euros and 1 hour to learn about it.

Rain was predicted for the evening, as Portugal was expecting its first-ever “zombie hurricane” (Hurricane Michael, rising from the dead). The epicentre of high winds wasn’t Porto, but certainly it got heavy rainfall. So we didn’t go too far for dinner. We found a slightly pricey but quite decent restaurant nearby to suit our needs.

Day 9: Potted Potter

In Porto, people line up to get into a bookstore called Lello. One reason they do this is that it’s a gorgeous building. The other is that JK Rowling was inspired by Porto to write Harry Potter. And I expect it’s the latter that really explains the crowds, as Porto has a lot of nice buildings.

We decided to do it. We got there at soon as it opened, at 9:30. There was already a line. You have to buy tickets to get in (credited against any book purchase), so we did that. After about 20 minutes in line, maybe, we were let in.

But it’s crazy in there. It is gorgeous, but so packed with people, it’s hard to appreciate. And forget about calmly perusing for something to read. They tell people not to be too loud in there, to not disrupt people trying to think (or whatever). As if anyone could get lost in thought in here! But at least, now we know.

After that, we decamped to the Museum of Art. It’s not a very big one, but did have some nice works, particularly sculptures. And it wasn’t crowded at all.

One of the gorgeous statues on display

After lunch at our new favourite restaurant in Porto, we did a little shopping. I got a purse made of cork (yes!) and a cute top. Jean bought a bag. Then it was a bit more walking, and a final dinner at a restaurant with a Madeira focus, that was quite pleasant.

The Catholic Glow!

Last day photo, and one of the best

The flight home, in contrast to our smooth departure one, was rather chaotic, with people lining up all over the place and impossible to hear announcements. And once on, we ended up having to wait an hour while they located and removed the bags of six people who didn’t make it onto the flight, for some reason. But then the flight generally went as well as can be expected, until my luggage didn’t show up.

The Air Canada attendant explained that my suitcase had ended up with the “connecting flight” ones—likely moved during that search for the bags to remove, one supposes. After 2 hours of waiting, it hadn’t make it onto the carousel, so they agreed to have it delivered to me. It did arrive on my doorstep by 6:00 AM the next day. (And that way we did beat the worst of rush hour traffic driving home from the airport, as Jean pointed out.)

A final song to finish, in salute to Carolyn, who seems to have played a rather prominent role in this blog post!


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Walking the Basque country: Part 2

This is a continuation of Part 1

A little interlude…

I mentioned that our hotel had some interesting architectural features, including a glass partition dividing the bathroom from the bedroom, which I had nearly walked into the first day.  Overnight Tuesday, I was awoken by the crashing sound of Jean hitting it from the bathroom side. I had assumed that he just hadn’t quite seen it, same as me, but there was a bit more to the story.

He woke up in the night to use the facilities and, seeing a familiar bowl shape in the bathroom, proceeded to sit on that. Only it wasn’t a toilet; it was a bidet. And he sat on it in such a way that he activated the faucet, spraying water both on him and the floor, which he then slipped on, causing him to crash into the glass door.

He wasn’t really hurt, and I’m still giggling about it.

Wednesday

Wednesday was our “free day”. After the included breakfast at our hotel—which was very good—we decided to head back into San Sebastian and spend more time in that city. We didn’t catch the “express” bus we were expecting, but it still got us there, just with some extra stops on the way.

Since we didn’t want to lose our hiking momentum, the first thing we did was climb up Mount Urgull behind the Old City to get some views. We also visited the free museum in the castle there, which covered San Sebastian’s rather lively history. (As an aside, I was still battling a cold this day, and concluding that Spanish nasal decongestant wasn’t quite as effective as North American. But overall the congestion didn’t stop me from doing anything.)

Streets of San Sebastian

Mount Urgull in the background of San Sebastian streets

When we descended it was around lunch time, and we had resolved to have a pintxo experience. Pintxo are what the Basque call tapas, but apart from the different word, they also serve them differently that in other parts of Spain. Instead of just ordering them from a menu, they prepare them and lay them out on trays all over the bar. You pick up a plate and go through collecting the items you want to try. You then order a glass of wine, enjoy, then traditionally pay at the end (though sometimes have you pay before).

Some recommend having just one item per bar so you can try lots of them, but given that I think you’re expected to order a drink at each place—well, we didn’t want to be that hung over. So we aimed to try two places.

The first was just a random pick among the many bars available. It was a pretty good assortment of appetizers, and a nice Rioja, and we even found a place to sit (though again, it’s more traditional to stand and eat).

For the second we decided to aim for one recommended the Rick Steeve’s book, called Bar Zeruko, which had an “award-winning chef”. And it is true that everything we had here was a step above the first bar. For example, after putting our items on the plate, they took them from us to get all items to the proper temperature and re-plated nicely with the appropriate sauces and seasonings. It was quite busy here (as most places were), but we shared a table with a nice Indian family.

Playing in San Sebastian

Another San Sebastian scene

We then walked over the San Telmo Museum, which featured art and exhibits on Basque culture. Jean was overtaken with an “afternoon sleepy time” feeling (maybe it was the wine, maybe it was the crashing into glass walls), so he mostly rested while I visited the exhibits.

We then bused back to Getaria.

No group dinner was booked this night, of course, but our attempts to find a place to eat were frustrating. Almost every place listed in Trip Advisor was closed this day. Still not entirely sure if that’s a typical for Wednesdays in October, or if it was because they were resting ahead of the national holiday the next day, when every restaurant was open again.

At any rate, we ended up eating at yet another Pintxo bar, even though I didn’t feel like having that kind of food again, which at any rate wasn’t anywhere near as good as either of the bars we’d been to at lunch. Jean was saved from dealing with my full grumpiness about this by the fact that someone else from the group joined us for dinner, so I had to act at least semi-civil.

We redeemed the evening slightly by then going to a small deli restaurant for dessert—at least those were quite good. I had molten chocolate cake and Jean had this very interesting lemon-lime sorbet with cava (sparkling wine) thing.

Thursday

Today’s walk was apparently the shortest of the trip, and ended with a walk on the beach. Our start was delayed a bit, though, as it was Spain’s national day, which meant reduced frequency of public buses. So our bus ride to the town of Zumaia departed a half hour after we were expecting it to.

Zumaia

Zumaia is not too hard on the eyes

That also meant that there were lots of other people out hiking on this beautiful day. We did part of the el Camino again (again the less popular part). Then we did some walking on rock formations called flysch.

Cathy on the cliffs near Zarautz, Spain

Life on the edge

We ended up walking back in town, early enough in the day to take a little coffee break. With the holiday, though, we had to split into two groups at different establishments.

We then went to hang out at the beach. (It was really a tough day.) A lot of people took their shoes off. A few were surprised by a rogue wave, though no damage done—just slightly wet pants.

Flysch at the Beach in Spain

Most of the beach looked like your regular sandy beach, but it did have this neat part, with more flysch

There were also some caves to explore.

from inside the flysch cave

We then headed back into town to find an ice cream shop, and wait for the bus back to Getaria.

Reward after a tough, tough day 🙂

The group dinner that night was at a restaurant where the waitress didn’t speak much English, which provided some challenges. Now I’ll mention that the vegetarian couple on our tour had limited eating options all week in these small French and Spanish towns; none had a concept of vegetarian entrees. But at this place they weren’t even able to get minimal accommodations, such as putting an egg instead of ham on a salad.

For the rest of us, the food was pretty satisfying, I think, but there was the strangeness that at every course, everyone received their food except one person, who had to wait another 10 minutes or so for theirs. Even though it was inevitably another one of what  someone else had ordered. Not sure what was up with that.

Jean and I ordered clams, done two different ways, as main courses—not realizing they were more of an appetizer size serving. And of course, served with no veg or starch. Very good, however. And did leave us with ample room for dessert.

For that menu, we took out the Google Translate app, which caused considerable giggling as one of the desserts was being translated as “panties”. (Very avant-garde of them, serving edible underwear.) I stayed away from that item and ordered a truffle tart, which was very good, not overly sweet. Jean ordered the same lemon-lime sorbet and cava dessert he’d had the night before, but didn’t find it quite as good here.

For wine with dinner, we had the local white, txakoli, which was nice and fresh.

Friday

Now might be a time to mention that I had missed packing a few clothing items I intended—forgot to get them out of the laundry and into my suitcase. Thus answering the question I usually ask myself when packing: Do I really need to bring so many clothes? The answer to that is YES.

It was just a daily annoyance trying to pick among the clothes I did have to find something clean enough, suitable for the current weather, which turned out to be warmer than the original predictions. So those people who say you only need two pairs and three shirts: You’re nuts! Clothes are not heavy. And you don’t want to spend your vacation time hand-washing them. Bring enough to cover your days away, already.

Anyway. On Friday I hiked in my oldest, rattiest hiking pants and re-wore my lightest T-shirt, as this was predicated to be the warmest day yet: 26 degrees + humidity. Two people on the tour decided to skip this one. Both of them had sustained injuries after booking this trip (one to a knee, another to both feet) and though they’d managed to complete all hikes to date, they had decided that was accomplishment enough.

For me, the runny nose had stopped, so that was a relief. (It really was a cold of short duration.)

We started by taking the bus to the nearby town of Zarautz, from which we walked back to Getaria. Zarautz was distinguished by having one of the longest beaches in the region.

Zarautz Beach

Zarautz from the Mountain

View of Zarautz from above

The hiking route took us by many vineyards, all producing the txakoli wine we’d had the night before. Stéphane said that none were open for visiting, though people did seem to be waiting at one of them? I dunno. Would have been interesting to visit if we could have.

On this walk we did get into a little bit of political discussion, on Brexit (they opined it was a bad idea, and the fault of older people who won’t have to deal with it), Justin Trudeau and Canada’s native problem (Jean brought that up—ssh, don’t air our dirty laundry), and hunting policies of various countries. It all stayed pretty civil except for the Londoner insisting that London economically supported the rest of the UK, which the Manchester folks didn’t appreciate. But it didn’t seem to create any permanent tensions.

I guess because the two slowest members were not participating, the walk (billed as 12 km, but measured at more like 10) was done before we knew it, and Getaria came into view before 2 PM. (We also felt, even though it was just a week, that we had definitely improved our fitness compared to the start.)

Walking in the Vinyards above the Village of Getaria

Walking the vineyards above Getaria

We got back, showered and changed, than had a drink with the group and Stéphane at the nice hotel lounge. No group dinner was booked for the evening, and the rest seemed to be leaning toward pizza at the deli. Jean and I decided to just do our own thing.

We ended up at a place called Txoko. After we’d been seated, given our orders, and had started drinking our txakoli, we noticed the rest of the group arrive! They’d changed their minds and decided to eat here as well. But we anti-socially stayed at our own table.

We got quite good service here, and splurged a bit on salad, followed by clams, then a shared grilled sole, one of the more expensive fish options. It was all very good and fresh, though. We were kind of excited that the menu said the fish came with potato and tomato side, but it was such a tiny portion, it was sort of hilarious. (Tasty, mind you.) For dessert I went with rice pudding and ice cream, while Jean had creme brulee.

Saturday

Today was the last day of the tour, so the only items on the agenda were hotel breakfast followed by shuttle to the Bilbao airport at 8:30. Jean and I were not flying out this day, however. We’d had trouble finding any reasonable flights back to Canada with a Bilbao departure time of 11:00 AM or later. So we booked a flight back on Sunday, and added in a night at a Bilbao hotel.

From the airport, we expected to take a taxi to that hotel, but the bus driver agreed to drive us and the other three people on the tour who had also extended it by a day, which was very nice of him. Our hotels were only 200 m apart.

Despite our morning arrival, we were able to check into our room. It was a more typical European size, but nice. It was the first of the trip with an actual double bed, rather than two singles pushed together, and with a coffee machine. (No face cloths or Kleenex still, though.)

Bilbao is known mainly for its Guggenheim Museum. But it was predicted to be the hottest day yet—high of 30—so we decided to start with a visit to the Old Town. We toured two churches here, but neither was that impressive—Basque churches are quite plain compared with the amazing ones in other parts of Spain. We also walked through the market.

Stained glass in one of the Bilbao churches

Then we headed in the direction of the Guggenheim. It’s architecturally very interesting, so we walked up and around both viewing bridges before going over to it ourselves.

Guggenheim Bilbao

Guggenheim Bilbao

Outside they have a spider sculpture that is pretty much exactly like the one at the National Gallery in Ottawa (it is the same artist). There’s also a puppy monument that, Jean informed me, was originally just a temporary exhibit, but the people of Bilbao liked it so much, the Museum bought it for its permanent collection.

Puppy at the Guggenheim

Puppy at the Guggenheim

Some people on our tour who’d visited Bilbao on their free day had recommended the bistro restaurant at the Guggenheim, as did my Rick Steeves’ travel book. So we had decided to eat there. In looking for it, we followed the signs marked “Restaurant”. When we got to the entrance, there were a bunch of people crowded around the posted menu. I thought, we don’t really need to look at that, let’s just go eat.

Inside, though, was this very fancy, white linen sort of place. We were almost the only patrons at this point, and were outnumbered by wait staff. Then they handed us the menu.

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So, 110 Euros is about 165 Canadian dollars, otherwise known as notably more than we’d typically been spending for the both of us to have dinner on this trip. Should we just walk out and go to the actual bistro?

But it’s kind of awkward to just walk out, isn’t it? So we justified it. After all, we hadn’t managed to get into the fine dining El Cano restaurant we hoped to dine at in Getaria. We’d been eating cheap bag lunches all week. Let’s splurge!

My friends, all nine course were really exquisite, probably some of the best food we’ve ever had. And it was actually more than nine courses, as they started us off with an amuse of tuna, quail’s egg, and basil gazpacho. The house-made bread was herb, sundried tomato, and olive oil. Each item was sourced in a particular way that they told us about, shrimp from this particular cove where they were especially flavorful, baked beans elevated to gourmet levels but still reminiscent of baked beans.

We did not have the wine pairings, both because of cost and because we didn’t want to end up really drunk, but we each had two glasses that were really nice. I start with an orange wine, which is white wine given some skin contact so it gets colour, while Jean had a jura. He followed with a nice Rioja while I had a great blend of Pinot Noir and Txakoli wine, which I will never be able to find in Canada.

This would have been a great place to take food photos, as you can imagine the plating was also lovely, but Jean was a bit intimidated about doing that. Nearer the end of our meal, more people had arrived for lunch (most dressed somewhat casually, as we were), so I did take a couple with my phone.

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This was an extra dessert, not on the menu, of custard, macaroon, and chocolate beignet

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The coffee cups were interesting

We then went in to visit the exhibits. It’s all modern art, and not necessarily the greatest art collection we’ve ever seen, but I did enjoy this tall lighted work of cascading, thoughtful phrases; the huge Andy Warhol painting of Marilyn Monroe collage; the Basquiat works; and this super slow-mo film by the featured artist, that was strangely compelling.

It’s the 20th anniversary of the Guggenheim this year, and to celebrate they were doing a week of special video, music, and light projections onto the building’s surface at night. When we left our hotel for dinner later, tons of people were heading in that direction to watch it. While waiting for our selected Italian restaurant to open, we saw some of the show.

And Italian food was a nice change, though the restaurant was quite warm. Afterwards, we tried to walk back to see more of the presentation (which repeated in 20-minute loops), but it proved rather complicated getting there, and once we did, it was too full of people to get to a good view. Oh well.

Sunday

Sunday was just a travel day. We decided to avoid the stress of a fairly short layover in Paris by booking an earlier Bilbao flight, which meant getting up quite early, then having a long wait at the Paris airport. We were grateful for its decent wifi, and the comfy seats at the Starbucks, which was tolerant of us buying only the periodic latte.

The flight to Toronto was a couple hours longer than the one from Montreal had been, then on getting there, we had to wait a bit before landing. An early thunderstorm had prevented other planes from landing at their designated times, so our turn got pushed back a bit.

That then meant that more planes than usual were landing at the same time, which made customs a bit of a nightmare. They have this whole electronic scanning, take-your-photo thing happening now? (In Europe, they still just have a person look at your passport, you know?) Then even after that, slight wait for the luggage to be unloaded.

But it got there, we got there, drive home was fine, there you be.


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Walking in the Basque Country: Part 1

Jean had this trip in mind for a while. I was less certain about it, as I knew nothing about these places—San Sebastian, Bilbao, Biarritz—which meant I had no particular desire to go there. But when I read the description of the trip on the Exodus website, it sounded pretty good. So we went ahead with booking it.

We were headed to this part of France and Spain:

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These are the main cities (or towns) there:

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Friday / Saturday

It’s tricky booking travel to these smaller European destinations from Canada. We decided to try to fly into Bilbao around the same time as the rest of the tour group (flying in from London—Exodus is a British tour company). That meant flying to Montreal initially (on Westjet) to catch an earlier evening Air France flight to Paris, from where we got another flight to Bilbao.

So it was a bit of milk run, but everything went well, basically. The “long” flight was only about six hours. Then we had to go through security again (why?) and very slow passport control (unusual for Europe), but basically everything was on time and our luggage made it through. We arrived a bit ahead of the rest of the group, but eventually met up with our tour guide, Stéphane, then the rest of the group. We totalled 11.

We were then bused to our hotel in Ascain, France, which is too small to be on the map above, but isn’t far from Biarritz. Hotel room was small but fine, and the place had a nice patio out front and the staff were all quite friendly.  They also offered a quite delicious and sustaining daily breakfast (as we knew the “typical” French breakfast of coffee and croissant would not suffice for hiking).

Dinners were not included in the tour package, but for most nights, the tour guide did a group booking for us at a local restaurant, which generally worked out well. The only ongoing issue was that the concept of “splitting the cheque” seemed foreign in these parts (in both France and Spain), so each evening ended with us all having to do math to figure out who owed what.

The highlights of our first French dinner were the really great fish soup (mussels, scampi, white fish) to start, the fries that came with our duck à l’orange, my iced nougat dessert, and that Jean’s cheese dessert was offered in the form of: Here are several slabs of delicious French cheese. Slice off as much as you want.

Sunday

Now’s the time to mention that we were really lucky with weather: Though the Basque region can be pretty rainy, we had nothing but sun all week. Particularly in the beginning, it would start out cool then warm up nicely, followed by a cool evening. Later in the week the temperature trended up, almost (but not quite) to too warm.

The first hike was described as a “gentle walk perfect for stretching out our legs”. This was a ruse, as it actually had more elevation than most of the hikes (470m), and involved climbing and descending two mountains (small mountains, but still) and a hill. Plus, it was listed as 9 km but everyone’s mileage counter (including mine, on my phone) reported it as more like 12 km.

But it was nice.

St Jean de Luz and the Bay of Biscay

Overlooking St Jean de Luz and the Bay of Biscay

We saw some animals here, in the form of wild horses named pottocks. They are small and tough and were previously used in mines. More recently, they were problems with them mating with larger horses, such that they couldn’t get enough food in the mountains to survive the winter. Now, to preserve them—and though they are still considered wild—they have “owners” who ensure they get vaccinated (and presumably try to keep the larger horses away from them).

Wild horse in the Pyrennes Mountain's of Spain

A pottock in its natural habitat

They also do some free-range farming in these mountains, notably of the Basque pigs, who do seem to be living the good life.

It’s a pig’s life

With the first walk, we found we were able to keep up with the group and didn’t have too many sore muscles the next day.

Back in Escain, they were having an annual festival. (Nice of them to time it with our visit.) Part of the involved shepherds guiding some of the pottocks down to a pasture in town, so the tourists could see them without hiking in the mountains. A bit odd, but the horses didn’t look too unhappy being on view, eating their hay. There were also farm animals display, a competition of sheep herding by those amazing border collies, and market booths set up selling food and crafts. We got some lunch items here.

Group dinner was at a place that specialized in fish and seafood. Jean and I shared a very nice cold foie gras starter, with a glass of local sweet wine reminiscent of sauternes. I then had grilled hake, a local fish on many menus, while Jean tried the Basque specialty of squid cooked in squid ink. Very nice texture on that. We shared a crème brulée for dessert. This place was also the only one to help us split the bill: the waitress emerged with a calculator.

Monday

The Monday hike started with a ride to the most popular tourist destination of the area, the train station that brings you up the Rhune mountains. We also took the train up to what was probably the most spectacular hike of the trip. It was a cooler morning, and the clouds were low-lying at that point—it was very neat to be walking above them.

On top of the World

On top of the world

Pittoks (Wild Pyrenees horses) in the Moutain

More pottocks, less impressed than we were by the view

The idea was then to walk down La Rhune, and back up to the train station, take the train down, and walk back to Ascain.

This is the border between France and Spain

On the border between Spain and France, as marked by the stone

But after lunch (for lunch, by the way, we each to buy our own provisions from the local store before heading out), before starting our ascent back to the train station, someone asked about just walking all the way back from where we were. The guide agreed that it was a reasonable option, and that it saved us from having to wait around for the train. The group agreed on that approach, and we did see some interesting things on that stretch of trail.

Sheep grazing n the Pyrenees Mountains

Grazing sheep

A former hunting lodge (vulture hunting) now used by some hikers

Feral Pittok in the Basque Pyrenees

A pottock who isn’t too worried about us

At one point the group got split up, on a rocky path that were more of challenge for some (Jean and I were kind of in the middle) and ended up taking different paths down. But the guide managed to gather us all eventually.

La Rhune: group split on path down to Ascain panorama (Andrew's)

You take the high road, and I’ll take…

Our final French dinner was also nice, at Etorri. I had salad followed by squid with tomatoes and garlic, when Jean had duck and duck: foie gras then roast duck with cherries. And creme brulee for dessert (again).

Tuesday

Today was the day we moved from France to Spain, so we started with a private bus ride to Col de Sainte Ignace. The bus then carried our luggage on to our hotel in Getaria while we took a short boat ride, then walked into San Sebastian, where we caught a public bus to Getaria.

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Where we took a boat to start the walk

The trail head start included the exciting site of a public toilet (rare on this trip), so four of the women decided to take advantage. It had a system of lights we didn’t quite understand, but the door wasn’t locked, so the first one went in.

We outside then noticed that the light changed to yellow, then red, which seemed a bit ominous in itself, and then we heard this sound of whooshing water. Followed by some screaming, then B. emerging, pants unbuttoned.

“I haven’t had time to go yet!” she said. It started squirting water out all over, pointing to her speckled pant legs.

So, this was a self-cleaning system that activated after each person. Light green, you go in and do your thing, you emerge, light turns yellow, then red, and it sprays water onto the floor and seat to clean it, then green and ready for the next person. Kind of a nice system, really, for the rest of us in line. 🙂

This was one of the easier walks, which is good because the intermittent sore throat I’d noticed the past two days had evolved into nasal congestion, which meant hiking with a copious supply of TP (European hotels don’t supply Kleenex, period) for nose blowing. It did start with a quite a few stairs going up, but then was largely flat until we later descended into San Sebastian. Here we were walking on part of the famous El Camino trail, albeit its less popular (because harder—more elevation) northern end.

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Approaching San Sebastian

San Sebastian was a bigger place than most of us were expecting. We had about an hour here before needing to take the bus, so we prioritized finding a place with coffee and washroom. We followed that up with ice cream before getting the inter-city bus to Getaria.

Our hotel there, Hotel Saiaz, was one of the nicest we’ve ever stayed at in Europe: Quite spacious and interesting architecture and room design. (Including a glass door to the bathroom which looked cool, but will lead to a funny story later.) It also had a fridge, which was handy.

We walked around Getaria a bit, getting cold supplies at a pharmacy where the pharmacist spoke excellent English (not always a given in these parts) and locating the Michelin-starred restaurant Jean had read about (El Kano). Unfortunately, with the combination of a food expo in San Sebastian and the national holiday Thursday, they were all booked up for the week.

Our dinner this night, as it would be the case each night, was booked for 8:30, as the Spanish don’t think anyone should eat their final meal of the day any earlier than that. I started with white asparagus, since Spanish main courses don’t include any sides—just whatever protein you order. (Jean nevertheless had foie gras again.) The asparagus was very good—fresh and flavored with olive oil. We then both had the sea bass, which was nice. I ordered a peach dessert which turned out to be… canned peaches. (Seriously?) Jean did better with the rice pudding.

Spanish menus also don’t routinely include wines by the glass so we got a bottle of Rioja. (At least the wine is fairly cheap.) It was good, but we weren’t able to finish it.


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A bewildered Canadian on a world gone mad

It’s Canada Day. And right now the world is giving me many reminders of how lucky I am to live here.

1. That Quebec’s referendum on separation was defeated.

I wasn’t paying much attention to Brexit until a couple weeks before it happened, and even then I was thinking that surely they wouldn’t vote Leave? Watching the results come in reminded me so much of the horrible Quebec separation referendum of 1995. A full night of tension (following weeks of worry on a vote I, an Ontarian, couldn’t even participate in) watching the movement of a Yes (separate) / No (stay) line on television.

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That nail biting time before the needle moved to the side of good

But then, while the Yes started out strong, it gradually swung toward the No, who ended up taking it with a 0.6% margin. Whereas Great Britain’s vote was the opposite: A strong initial showing for Stay giving way to Leave, who took it with 2% margin. (No matter how many times I refreshed my browser.)

What would have happened to Canada had it gone the other way? Great Britain’s experience is giving us an idea:

  • A precipitous drop in currency.
  • Tumbling stock markets, with the UK dropping from the 5th to the 6th world economy overnight.
  • Expected rises in unemployment, debt and lowering of GDP and growth.
  • A Leave team with no plan for how to exit.
  • Political disarray all around, leaving no party or leader currently able to effectively govern through the chaos.
  • Regions (Scotland, Ireland, London) unhappy with the result talking separation of their own.

For Canada, it would have been all that, only worse. (For an idea just how ill-prepared the country was for the possibility of a Yes vote in the Quebec Referendum, read Chantal Hébert’s The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day That Almost Was.)

And just for the record, Leave voters in Great Britain: What you did was crazy. Your country had a great deal in the EU: you were allowed to retain your own currency and greater control over your own borders than other countries, while still enjoying full trading access and movement of workers. And you gave that up for what?

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2. That recent attempts to win Canadians’ votes through xenophobic appeals have failed.

While a number of factors inspired Leave voters, the wish to reduce immigration—particular a certain kind of immigrant—was among them, as evidenced by the unfortunate increase in hate crime and racist abuse since the vote (as though racists now feel “allowed” to air their views). Meanwhile, the presumptive Republican nominee for US President wants to ban all Muslims from entering the country (“til we figure out what’s going on”) and build a wall to keep out Mexicans. And France has their National Front party. And so on…

But similar appeals haven’t met with success in Canada. In Quebec’s (them again) 2014 election, the Parti Québecois ran, in part, on a “Charter of Values” that would have banned public sector employees from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols:

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This bill was so popular in polls, the PQ used it try to turn their minority government into a majority. It didn’t work. After a fairly disastrous campaign by the PQ, it was the Liberals, who opposed the Charter, who were elected with a majority of the seats. With the added bonus that the spectre of another Quebec referendum on separation retreated further.

Then in the 2015 election, the ruling Conservatives appeared to gain ground in polls after they pledged to ban the wearing of niqabs at Canadian citizenship ceremonies, and to set up a barbaric practices tip line. [This is when I had to check out of Canadian election coverage for a while, as I was so distraught.] But the end result was, again, a coalescing around the Liberal party, who were foursquare against both proposals (and, it must be said, who generally ran a brilliant election campaign).

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A plurality of Canadians chose hope over fear

Upon election, Liberals walked the talk, dropping the court case on the niqab ban, and most notably, welcoming 25,000 (and counting) Syrian refugees, moves that have only made them more popular since the election. Americans look on it in wonder, from The Daily Show to the New York Times:

Why? Well, Vox Magazine says it’s the outcome of decades of Canadian government fostering tolerance and acceptance as core national values. As a result, most Canadians see immigration as an opportunity, not a problem; as something that improves rather than threatens the nation. Apparently, Canada is the least xenophobic country in the Western world.

3. That our current government is (mostly) pro-trade

One of the most confusing results of the Brexit vote, to me, was the cavalcade of federal Conservatives MPs who tweeted their approval—the only Canadian I’m aware of who did so. But isn’t Conservatives supposed be all pro-trade, because it’s good for business, while it’s the lefties who are opposed, fearing it’s bad for labour?

And yet there’s Trump, spitting about pulling out NAFTA. What? When did this turn around? (Harper’s government, it must be said, was most definitely pro-trade, making the MPs comments all the more confusing.)

So it was another interesting bit of timing that this week was the NAFTA summit between the current US President, Canadian Prime Minister, and Mexican President.

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Too bad they’re all men (but this US will be changing that soon, right? right?), but a fine-looking trio they are

Their big message: Trade is good. Countries are stronger when they work together. Globalism brings prosperity. And it was all capped off by one amazing speech President Obama gave in the House of Commons:

And what makes our relationship so unique is not just proximity. It’s our enduring commitment to a set of values, a spirit alluded to by Justin that says no matter who we are, where we come from, what our last names are, what faith we practice, here, we can make of our lives what we will.

Watch or read the rest here.

It was heart-warming, and for a while, one might forget that it remains so much easier to cross borders in Europe than it is to move between the US and Canada, that we have to pay duties on even tiny online purchases from the US, and absolute absurdities such as Canadian inter-provincial (!) trade barriers that cost our economy billions.

So there’s a lot of work to do on this one. But at least it seems the intent it to make things better, not worse, on this front.

Cause that’s the Canadian way.

Happy 149, Canada.

 

 


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Dining in Berlin

The Hackescher Markt area of Berlin is the one end we ended up dining in the most. We went there first on the Monday, aiming for an Italian restaurant named Muret La Barba. We knew it was wise to try to arrive before the peak dining timing of 8:00 pm, but we were still figuring out the transit system then and weren’t able to meet that deadline. And therefore weren’t able to get a table.

For the next night, we made a reservation. That was tricky, as they were pretty busy that night as well, but we did nab one for 6:30 pm. When we arrived we were offered a table we’d have to vacate by 8:00, or we could sit in the bar area by the window and stay as long as we’d like. Jean selected the window because he thought it was a better spot anyway—he has trouble with accents and hadn’t caught that it also allowed us to eat at leisure.

A few things we gradually learned about dining out in Berlin:

  • They just don’t bring you your bill until you ask for it.
  • Berliners tend to like to linger over their meals, so if the place is full at 7:30, you’re likely not getting in at all that day.
  • Your server will speak at least some English, but don’t count on an English menu being available. Might be, might not.
  • The Google Translate app allows you to use phone’s camera to translate Germans “on the fly” into English.
  • Getting credit cards accepted is not so much a problem as it used to be. But, there is no tip option. You have to tell the server in advance how much tip to add to the credit card bill. (Typical tip rates there are 5 to 10%.)
  • If tipping in cash, you don’t just leave it on the table. You give it to the server.
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Google Translate app

We hadn’t figured all of that out by Tuesday, however, and were still wondering why the constant delay in getting our bill, and ended up not leaving a tip despite the fine service. Oops.

But, it was a lovely meal. They make their own wine there, and were able to recommend an interesting white to start. We intended to have just a glass each of that, with the idea of trying another, but they just left the whole bottle there after pouring us a glass each, for us to take as much as we wanted, and turned out what we wanted was the whole bottle.

As for food, we started by sharing a bread and cheese plate with walnuts, pear, and honey. Then I had the linguine con vongole (“with clams”) in a white wine and garlic sauce, while Jean went with a delicious mushroom ravioli in cream sauce. We shared a crème brulée for dessert, and each had a decaf espresso.


Tuesday we were back in that same area, this time trying a vegan restaurant, believe it or not: Kopps. And it was fantastic. They gave us an amuse to start, then Jean had a delicious cauliflower and peanut soup, while I tried the asparagus tart.

Vegan Soup .... Um Um Good!

Not sure why the soup is green, but it was some good

Vegan Veggie Roll :)

It was a spring roll-like tart

As mains, Jean had amazing gnocchi with eggplant and beet. I had barley risotto with asparagus (again!) and apple—the apple really made the dish “pop”. We enjoyed these with different glasses of German whites.

For dessert, we shared a plate of faux cheese—made with nuts and so on, and served with fruit such as figs and strawberries. Jean was kind of disappointed it wasn’t really cheese (which he knew going in, but still), but I thought everything was quite good. The waiter recommended having beer with that, and it seemed so odd to me, I ordered it. The beer was delicious! (I think it’s only Canadian beer I don’t like.) Jean had a kir royale type of drink that was also very nice.


Our lunches tended to be fine but not worth blogging about—all right udon, OK Chinese, acceptable Turkish. On Thursday lunch time, we were in the Charlottenburg Schloss area of more touristy restaurants. We though it time to finally have German good, at Brauhaus Lemke. We had a congenial waiter who commented on the number of Canadians he’d served that week—in fact, a couple were at the table behind us. And the place had a nice ambience, and a history, explained on the menu.

The food wasn’t terrific, though. German’s not our favourite cuisine anyway, and I’m not sure this was the best exemplar of it. I had duck, and the meat right under the skin was nice, but overall, it was overcooked. It came with some actually very good red cabbage, but pretty mediocre dumplings. Huge portions! But we left quite a bit.

The place was also a brewery, so we each had a beer. Both of those, my friends, were delicious!


After that heavy lunch, we weren’t up for a big meal. We considered trying to do something cool like go to a jazz club, or out dancing, but finally just settled on a wine bar.

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Vivent les vins… Libre!

No complaints here about the quality and choice of wines, many of which were French, or the food: We had a couple cheese plates (actual cheese, this time), a buffalo mozarella and beet dish, and another built around bacon and eggs. The only problem was that our waiter wasn’t very attentive. The whole pacing of when items arrived was a bit off; we’d have to wander off and go look for him when we wanted to order something else. So it was a nice evening—but not perfect.


Our best lunch was Wednesday, at the beautiful Café-Restaurant Wintergarten, facing a garden. Their white asparagus soup was incredible, but even more important was that it put an end to our streak of breakfast problems.

We’d decided not to go with our hotel’s breakfast buffet, as it was kind of expensive, and we’re not big fans of buffets. We’d thought that the nearby train station restaurants might be suitable for this simple meal, but… Honestly, if we’d been OK with just pastry and coffee for breakfast, that would have worked. German pastries are almost as good as French, and I experienced no bad coffee all week. But French experience had taught me that pastry breakfast leaves me hangry by lunchtime, so we were looking for something more substantial to start the day.

Googling breakfast places did indeed find others, but they just weren’t that good. So when we saw that Café-Restaurant Wintergarten served breakfast daily til 2:00 pm, it seemed perfectly reasonable Thursday morning to take the 20-minute train ride there to eat it. Finally, five days in: A delicious start to the day! (Belgian waffles with fruit, in my case.)

Then Friday, after sleeping in, we took a ride in a different direction to the place Lonely Planet advised offered the best breakfast in Berlin: Chipps Restaurant. It was totally worth the subway ride and walk. Jean declared his Hollandaise eggs delicious. I loved my “lumberjack” breakfast of French toast, scrambled eggs, bacon, and greens. Due to concert timing, this turned out to be a two-meal day for us, so just as well we started with a hardy one.

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I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK… Photo from Yelp


Saturday night I was hoping to get a nice final dinner, but doubtful I would given, that we were in a random tapas restaurant. German tapas. Not Spanish.

But I was pleasantly surprised by the nice little dishes that were served. Exquisite mashed potatoes with truffle oil. Tender sole with tomatoes. Lively beets and walnuts. Tasty roast potatoes in walnut oil. Fresh tomato bocconcini. Creative fried cucumber (Jean left that one to me). Everything was great.

 


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Other Berlin highlights

Berlin has a lot to offer besides memorials to its Wall. Initially I’d thought that since we were staying in the city a whole week, it should be pretty relaxing—that we’d be able to take in activities at a leisurely pace. Wasn’t quite what happened. (Maybe we’re just not that good at relaxing.) Berlin is pretty sprawling, and we wanted to see different parts of it. So while it wasn’t really stressful—at least not that often—it definitely felt like we were always on the move.

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Berlin neighborhoods. Map By TUBS – Own work

This is some of what we saw (that I haven’t already covered).

Holocaust Memorial (Monday, Mitte)

Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial is in a kind of a maze design. It was interesting, but strangely… Playful, for a Holocaust Memorial? Especially since a lot of kids were, in fact, playing a sort of hide and seek in it the day we were there? And the interpretation centre was closed, and we didn’t get back to it, so we got no clues from that. Worth seeing, but unexpected.

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Members of Adam Lambert’s band at the Holocaust Memorial, same week but not same day we were there. Source: https://www.instagram.com/p/BEwBO4uIMve/?hl=en

Topographie of Terrors (Monday, Mitte)

This site had panel exhibits on the Nazi rise to power and the subsequent effects on the population of Berlin. I found it quite interesting, especially learning (or being reminded) that after a period of economic hardship and high unemployment, Hitler and the Nazi party failed to gain an outright majority in the election: They got 42% of the vote. Now, that’s enough for an outright majority in Canada’s electoral system, but in Germany, Hitler had to pass laws giving him the ability to govern basically unopposed. He did this with the support of several minor parties. The ones who weren’t on board later found themselves harassed and arrested.

Pergamon Museum (Tuesday, Museuminsel)

The Pergamon contains these huge installations re-creating Greek courtyards and Babyloninan palaces. I’ve never seen anything like it. And the included audioguide explained the effort in bringing these huge pieces over to Germany from where they were found, back in the day when Germany was the per-eminent archaeological nation.

The 2nd-century-B.C. marble Pergamon Altar

A big chunk of Greece inside a German museum

Neues Museum (Tuesday, Museuminsel)

The Neues (“New”) museum, as I’d mentioned, we liked even more than the Pergamon. The building itself is lovely: “a dynamic space that beautifully juxtaposes massive stairwells, domed rooms, muralled halls and high ceilings”, as Lonely Planet puts it. The exhibits are a mix of old and new, such as artifacts from Troy along with a sociological look at the meaning of moustaches over time.

Neanderthal Likeness reconstruction from a skull

Computer modelling was used to determine what this Neanderthal looked liked, based on his skull. Cool, eh?

Neues Museum

The Neues has a particularly great collection of Egyptian artifacts

The major showpiece of the Neues is the bust of Nefertiti—but that, you are not allowed to photograph. It is indeed a stunningly beautiful piece. (The much less well-preserved bust of her husband is also on display here.)

City West sights (Wednesday, Charlottenburg)

To get here we had to take the U2 to Zoo Station, meaning that I had this song stuck in my head all day:

U2 Zoo Station – official / unofficial video

Our first stop was at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche [honestly, these German words], a church that was bombed during the second world war. Its been left in its damaged state as a war memorial. The remaining room is lovely, with painted roof and frescoes, and exhibits some interesting artifacts and photos of how the church as a whole once looked.

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Found photo, as construction made it difficult for Jean to get a good shot of this building

Zoo station is so named because it does overlook the Berlin Zoo, which we didn’t go in and visit (though it’s supposed to be quite good), but we could see the monkey and baboon cages from the rooftop terrace of Bikini Berlin, a mall we visited just to gawk at its gorgeous interior, and not toshop at. (We were terrible consumers in Berlin. Didn’t buy anything.)

The Käthe-Kollwitz Museum we visited largely because it was a convenient fill-in between lunch and the Story of Berlin Museum. Described as Germany’s greatest woman artist, she was very talented, especially with her lithographs, many of which had a maternal theme. But due to demands of motherhood and, especially, limitations placed on her during war time, she wasn’t able to produce a great deal of work.

Strangely for people who like art galleries and museums, that ended up being the only one we visited. We didn’t make it to the National Gallery, the Art Museum, or the Salvador Dali Museum.

Berlin's National Gallery

All we saw of Berlin’s National Gallery: Its impressive exterior

Schloss-Charlottenburg (Thursday, Charlottenburg)

When we found that the train deposited us in downtown Charlottenburg rather than at the castle site, we decided to walk to it rather than take the bus. The Schloss sight has four buildings you can visit, but the most impressive one is one we started with, the New Palace. This was the home to a series of German royals past, each of whom seemed to want to build their own wing of rooms when they took over, rather than occupy what was already in place. So the palace is quite large and reflects a variety of decorating styles. Though partly destroyed in the war, enough of it remained for reconstruction to make sense.

The New Palace audio-guide (most Berlin museums included an audio-guide free) was one of the best I’ve encountered, perfectly timed to guide your walk through the series of grand and slightly less-grand rooms.

Charlottenburg Schloss

Many statues are displayed at Schloss-Charlottenburg. I love this one.

Charlottenburg Schloss

And this is a cool photo

The remaining buildings were not as grand, but were worth taking a stroll through on the the pleasant garden grounds. The Altes, an older palace, is used to exhibit art (and, OK, I guess that is another art gallery we saw)—and had a remarkably poorly timed audio-guide! The Belvedere exhibited a whole lot of porcelain. The Mausoleum had a very impressive interior, with marble, and columns, and statues.

Stone Veil

Not a mausoleum picture (still from the New Palace), but pretend it is

Postdamer Platz (Thursday)

Postdamer Platz is called a “square” but is more like a disorienting set of intersecting streets with the same name. So it took us a while to get oriented, but once we did, we decided to visit the Museum of Film and Television, which is free later in the day on Thursday. I, who had studied how influential Germans were in the early history of cinema (The Cabinet of Dr. CaligariMetropolis, Greta Garbot, Leni Riefenstahl), found it much more interesting than Jean, who was not aided by his audioguide running out of battery. The only part he somewhat enjoyed—which I also found fun—was the special exhibit on all the Oscar Best Actress winners through history.

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We saw this famous dress of Cher’s “in person” at Berlin’s Museum of Film

River cruise (Friday, Museuminsel)

Most of the week in Berlin, the weather was unseasonably cool. Friday that finally turned around, and we got a beautiful, warm, sunny day. It felt that all of Berlin was out in parks, basking in the warmth. We decided it was time for a River Cruise.

Berlin TV Tower and TV Fan!

Finally enjoying the warmth! That’s Berlin’s highest structure, the Fernsehturm or “TV tower”

It was a good, one-hour tour. You did get a different view of Berlin and its buildings from the water, and we were supplied with English audioguide as to what we were seeing, though the geographic organization meant we were sometimes jumping in history in a somewhat confusing way.

Berlin River Tour

The Berlin Dome viewed from the water. Complete with construction cranes.

Potsdam (Saturday)

Potsdam is a popular day trip spot from Berlin, being about a 40-minute train ride away. Although our trip was slightly longer, because they were doing some track work on the final part, so we were moved to a bus for that bit.

On the way I’d read about a tour that sounded as though it would be good, taking us to all the main sights in the town, with a guide. The tour representative was there to meet our bus, and when we were 5 Euros short of the quoted price, just accepted that.

It was nice not to have to figure out how to get ourselves everywhere, for once. But what we hadn’t realized was that we wouldn’t get to go inside any of the museums or castles: just see the exterior, led by a guide who had to alternate between German for one group and English for another.

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Potsdam Schloss and Park Sanssouci (the French word, meaning “without worry”). Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

Still, we did learn some things about the Prussian emperors who once inhabited these palaces, such as that they spoke better French than German, and that they introduced the potato to German cuisine.

After the tour, we would have had time to head back to one or more of the sights and tour inside, but we decided to just spend some time in the fairly charming old town instead.

Among the other sights we did not get to:

  • Museum of Photography
  • Tiergarten (like Central Park in New York; we only saw the edges of it)
  • German Historial Museum
  • Parliament tour
  • Checkpoint Charlie—We did walk in the area, but didn’t really go in anywhere
  • Planetarium
  • Aquarium
  • Jewish Museum

But I still think we did all right.


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Tear down the wall

Modern Berlin is vibrant. Its streets are always busy, though never uncomfortably crowded. Its people are a multicultural mix who speak a variety of languages, with German predominating, of course. The population is pretty stylish. That it’s a pretty open, liberal society is apparent in various ways, from the casual beer drinking by people on subways cars on the street (not drunks; just people enjoying a beer); the mant sex shops and clubs; even the sweet, candy-cotton waft of e-cigarette smoke.

And it certainly seems economically healthy, with all the construction projects foiling Jean’s photography attempts, the many high-end designer shops available, the architecturally beautiful new malls like Bikini Berlin,  and the relative scarcity of homeless people—far fewer than you see in large Canadian cities.

Berlin Dome

The Berlin Dome—one of the rare older buildings in modern Berlin

Berliners are well-supported in their desire to move around. Admittedly, the new airport is stuck is some of construction limbo, and the current one seems a bit dated. (It’s convenient that you go through security right at your gate, and disembark from the plane right where your luggage is, but there’s a notable lack of airport services.) But the transit system… amazing! It took us a few days to figure out it—the light rail (M trains), the surface trains (S-Bahn), the subway (U-Bahn), the regional train, the buses. But then—sometimes with help of Google Maps—it got us everywhere we wanted to go.

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Berlin transit map

We did notice some police presence—always around the Jewish synagogue, often at the main train station: one day we emerge to a whole lineup of police officers at the ready with riot gear. But it seemed clear this was about protecting, not repressing the population.

I think that’s why all the memorials to The Berlin Wall struck me so profoundly. The contrast with the present was so stark.


That Berlin was a city once divided by all wall into communist East and democratic west was the main thing I knew, going in. Today almost all of the Wall is down, and you can’t tell East from West—not by architectural differences, or weird road designs, or anything.

The main memorial remaining is the Gedenstätte Berliner Mauer, on a street once completed divided into east and west. Now just one wall segment remains, with an outdoor exhibit.

The closest train stop to it is the Nordbahnhof S-station. This station was below East Berlin, so the West Berlin trains that ran through it at that time were not permitted to stop there. This and few others like it became “ghost stations.”

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The end of the line—U station trapped behind the Berlin Wall, 1962. Source: http://www.iridetheharlemline.com/tag/berlin/

The communist regime quickly realized these stations could be used for escape attempts, so they set up guards. Only thing is, the guards then escaped, so they started locking the guards in their posts to prevent this. In case of fire? The guards would have been doomed. I learned about this and about other—mostly unsuccessful—attempts to escape from these increasingly fortified ghost stations via informational posters put up at this station.

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The Nordbahnhof S-station then and now (pretty much). Source: https://stretchingintoinfinity.com/tag/ghost-station/

It all just seemed so weird—this enormous amount of government time and money spent on keeping a population imprisoned in its country.


The Berlin Wall exhibit itself naturally gives the history of the building of the Wall. The initial version was a little too easy to scale, so they kept “improving” it with various features that made climbing and escaping more difficult. I hadn’t realized that they’d ended up with two parallel Walls, with a fairly wide, guarded space between each.

The green space on the left is bordered by yet another wall…

There was also a photo exhibit of people who had died attempting to escape (or from just being in the wrong place). Many were teenagers and children.

A rebuilt Church of Reconciliation chapel stands at one end. The original church was dynamited in 1985, its walled-on facade proving too much of a PR nightmare for the East German regime.

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Photos, artifacts, and this statue commemorate the original Church of Reconciliation. Photo by me.


Later we visited a couple museums that focused on what life was like in East Berlin. The Lonely Planet description of the DDR Museum is pretty accurate:

The ‘touchy-feely’ DDR Museum does an entertaining job of pulling back the iron curtain on an extinct society. In hands-on fashion you’ll learn how, under socialism, kids were put through collective potty training, engineers earned little more than farmers, and everyone, it seems, went on nudist holidays.

The interactive approach was kind of fun, while also being educational. You got to sit in a 1970s style living room, try to determine your factory’s target output under central planning principles (very difficult), and gauge whether your choice of clothing and accessories would meet with government approval.

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Photo from the official DDR Museum site

This is a good place to go if you want your faith restored in capitalism. It explained how the economic central planning led to product shortages (except for privileged government members), though it also keep basic food stuffs really cheap (which I hadn’t realized). And it just made innovation impossible—lack of trade meant they couldn’t build on others’ work, and lacked the incentive and materials needed to come up with similar improvements themselves. This was perhaps most evident in the one car available to East Germans (if they saved their money a long time): the Trabant.

Tranbant Sales Girl :)

The Trabant: A car model that didn’t evolve for 30 years

The above photo was taken at the History of Berlin museum, which tries to bring all of Berlin history to life through a series of multimedia exhibits. We didn’t get as much out of that one (though the teenagers there seemed to like it), but it did include a tour of a a nuclear bunker.

Now, we have toured a nuclear bunker in Canada: the Diefenbunker. This is a huge, amazing facility designed to keep the Government of Canada operational during a nuclear attack.

These German nuclear bunkers couldn’t be more different. Designed for ordinary people—though there were only enough of these for about 0.5% population (with no real plan for how the unarmed guards in charge were supposed to manage this triage)—only the very basics were available. In the vestibule, you were to strip, shower, then enter the bunker, in which almost all floor space was taken up with stacked bare cots.

Bunker Bedding

Welcome to the apocalypse

The space, our tour guide pointed out, would quickly very hot with the 3000 or so inhabitants crammed in. The toilets and sinks were quite limited for this number of people, and there were no showers or mirrors inside. Kitchens were also small, and designed just to heat up big pots of canned food. An air filtration system, with backup generator, was designed to work just 14 days. Then it was back out into the nuclear wasteland with you.

Whole idea really gave me the willies.


We took a bit of a break from Wall memorials til later in the week, when we stopped in at the Trãnenpalast, or Palace of Tears, the preserved pavilion where East Berliners had to say good-bye to visitors. The small exhibit does a very good job of showing of what the border-crossing experience was like, and giving examples of families and lovers who were torn apart by the political rift. Quite emotional.

The Wall only came up once more, on our tour of Potsdam the last day—I hadn’t realized the Wall stretched so far. A small fence by the river marks the spot where the view-blocking Berlin Wall once caused much unhappiness.

Building walls. Who in this day and age would still think that’s a good idea?