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Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Four days in January

Now that I’ve come up with it, the title of this post seem vaguely ominous, as though I’m about to recount some tragic event that, in four short days, changed my life forever.

But no, sorry, this is nothing that interesting, I’m afraid. (Mind you, I am glad I haven’t recently experienced a great tragedy.)

Jean’s work has been requiring more travel lately, including three weeks in Barrie (about a 2-hour drive away). The first weekend in between, he came home. The second one, he decided to go a conference in Toronto. I would join him there.

This conference is annual, and normally I just stay over for one, maybe two nights. But with us having seen less of each other, I went there Friday after work and took Monday off, such that we could spend three nights and (part of) four days together.

Due to heavy Toronto traffic, my Friday bus was late arriving. Meanwhile, Jean was dealing with the fact that he couldn’t get into his hotel room, because the hotel (Doubletree by Hilton) had mistakenly registered him as staying only one night, even though we had booked for four (and had the paperwork to prove it). Initially, they also weren’t sure where his luggage was. (Turned out it was still in the room.) That all got straightened out shortly before I arrived.

Originally we’d been planning to meet with my younger sister and her husband for dinner, but she’d contacted us a couple days before with the realization that her son had a basketball game and her husband would be out of town, so… We made other plans. Which was just as well, as with the bus delay and hotel troubles, we would have been late for dinner.

But we were on time for the alternative we booked, old reliable Ki, where we once again had a really nice meal of their “modern sushi”, with a bottle of Grüner Veltliner.

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The jalapenos gave this a nice kick

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Sushi and sashimi assortment

Saturday morning Jean had more conferencing, and we had an early dinner booking, so in the afternoon, we just did a bit of ambling about on Toronto streets…

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Hospital street art

Til the weather became rainy and unpleasant, at which point we decided to explore the Toronto underground. This told us that… A lot of stores in the Toronto underground are closed on Saturdays. Kind of weird.

Dinner was at the very popular Richmond Station, which we’d really enjoyed this past summer. Given its popularity, we were only able to get reservations at either 5:15 or 10 pm. We went with 5:15 pm. We were able to do the chef’s surprise menu, which made it easy. They were able to give us five courses before they needed the table again, and everything was lovely, from the raw oysters…

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To the truffle mushroom soup, and on to the trout with cauliflower and barley…

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to the beef main course, and the hazelnut ice cream dessert, and polished off with some chocolates and macaroons.

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The wine we had was a French Pinot noir that was a pretty flexible match.

We were back at the hotel early enough to watch Eddie the Eagle on Netflix. Pretty much the definition of “feel good movie”, that one, but it’s well done. Eddie the Eagle was the British ski jumper at the Calgary Olympics who had taken up the sport only a year before, and came dead last in the competition, but was thrilled just to land on his feet (and, incidentally, set a British record for that sport). This movie was good at showing that this really was an accomplishment! Landing at Olympic ski jumping is not easy.

So, I’d recommend it. (Canadians, though, will have to look elsewhere than Netflix to watch it. They dropped it on February 1. Hence my hurry to watch it in January.)

Sunday late morning we met with my other sister at the Crown Princess for dim sum. Food and conversation were good, as usual.

Then we headed to the ROM, where they were featuring three special exhibits. Once we got through the rather long entry lineup, we went to the first one, on the Vikings. And found it somewhat underwhelming. Definitely I learned more about the Vikings, but that included the fact that they didn’t leave behind that many artifacts. I was expecting something more spectacular, I guess.

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I was amused by Zuul’s tag line

The Wildlife Photography exhibit, on the other hand, was really great. Lots of fantastic photographs (none of which we could take photos of, of course). As for Christian Dior exhibit? Honestly, we didn’t go ub because of the lineups. Which is really unfortunate, because when we first got to the exhibit door, there was no lineup. Had we realized, we would have gone in then and looked at the Wildlife Photography afterwards. But we didn’t, and we didn’t.

Our dinner that night, with some friends, was at our first new (to us) restaurant, Pearl Diver. It was a little bit noisy, but friendly service and definitely good at preparing its signature cuisine, seafood.

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Jean’s meal was Spanish-style: No sides! But they weren’t all like that.

And snowy Monday was basically about getting ourselves on the road, back to our respective destination cities.


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Lowest of the Low live at Maxwell’s

I went to see Lowest of the Low in concert again on January 20. That ties  them with The Who, Bob Geldof, U2, and Sting as the artists I’ve seen live most often: three times each.

If I keep going back to see Lowest of the Low, it’s partly that it’s so easy to do: All the shows I’ve seen have been at small-ish venues in my hometown. But it’s also that, 26 years after their first album’s release, the music still holds up.

Now, the challenge of finding someone to join me at a Lowest of the Low concert is that most people have never heard of them. (The challenge of finding someone to join me at a concert by a more famous artist is that most people won’t like them enough to want to pay the ticket prices. So concert company is always a challenge.) But, I didn’t give Jean much choice in the matter, and then he suggested I invite Tim and Jess, and they were willing to give it a go.

First we had a rather enjoyable dinner at Solé.  Lots of laughs during the conversation. (Turns out we could make a double-entendre out of anything, even snowshoes.) We also enjoyed the food.

Winterliscious

A rather arty photo by Jean of our Sole dinner

And we arrived in a good time at Maxwell’s, my first time at this relatively new venue. I knew there wasn’t assigned seating, but wasn’t aware there basically wouldn’t be any seating. Jean suggested we go right up to the front of the stage, so we could lean on the barriers. This led to Tim to singing a bit of Alanis’ “Front row” (not one of her more famous songs—but I know it).

And speaking of famous songs, Tim wondered if there would be any Lowest of the Low songs he’d recognize. I had to suggest that, perhaps, he would not know any. Jean, who lives with me, and therefore by osmosis knows many Lowest of the Low songs, was a bit incredulous. What about “Henry Needs a New Pair of Shoes?” he said. Or “Rosy and Grey”?

But the thing is, although Lowest of the Low have the one semi-famous album, Shakespeare My Butt (routinely selected among the “Best Canadian albums of all time”), from which various songs were indeed played on some Canadian radio stations, no one particular song from that album became a big hit. So seems people either know all 17 songs from that album, or they know 0.

Now, we were all the 0 group for opening act Jane’s Party Band—but they weren’t bad at all. They are Toronto-based, and get some support from various members of Blue Rodeo. And their guitar player, who was standing right in front of us, was a real babe. So it wasn’t hard to pay attention.

Then around 9:20, Lowest of the Low started their set. By this time, the place looked really full! They apparently have not lost their ability to draw a crowd in KW.

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I’m in the front row
The front row with popcorn [beer, really]
I get to see you
See you, close up

I knew I’d have no hope of remembering the setlist, but thank you Internet, here it is. Mostly from Shakespeare My Butt, still, starting with “Kinda the Lonely One” and ending with “Rosy and Grey”, with seven others in between. Next most represented was the new album, Do the Right Now, with five songs. Then two each from album three Sordid Fiction and the under-rated (in my opinion) second album Hallucigenia (and that did not include “Black Monday”, much to the dismay of the dude requesting it from the opening chords).

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It was a fun show. Lead singer and songwriter Ron Hawkins is very charismatic and entertaining. And while I like all their music, it is true that the Shakespeare My Butt songs that still make up the bulk of the set have a certain poppy “bounce” to them that it somewhat lost in their later work. The lyrics take on some big issues, so it’s a little weird (when you think about it) to be happily singing and dancing to songs about homelessness, serial killers, mental illness, and the Spanish civil war. Best not to think about it!

“Hey Waterloo. What a perky bunch! Pace yourselves; we have a lot of songs to play.” — Ron Hawkins

New Low ... for the Low :)

The crowd were a perky bunch. When Ron decided to take a lay-down mid-song, the girls behind us requested front-row access to get photos. Which was fine. They also occasionally joined Jean and I in dancing. Also fine. But then another girl decided she was getting the front row, and staying there, and flaying her arms around, putting Jess at considerable risk until Tim made himself a human shield. Less fine.

[Like, if you’re that big a fan, get to the show earlier, man.]

Still, we overall had a good time. I liked this venue better than the last one I’d seen them in, The Starlight. It just seemed cleaner (at least at the start of the show) and was bigger, and better suited to loud, lively band. And since Lowest of the Low fans are few and far between in the world, it really is fun to have the rare occasion of being in a room full of people who also know all the words.

Set list:

  1. Kinda the Lonely One
  2. Powerlines
  3. Saint Spurious
  4. Salesmen, Cheats, and Liars
  5. So Long Bernie
  6. Infinite
  7. California Gothic
  8. For the Hand of Magdelena
  9. Concave
  10. Gerona Train
  11. Gossip Talkin’ Blues
  12. Life Imitates Art
  13. Darkhorse
  14. Henry Needs a New Pair of Shoes (snipping of Bankrobber by The Clash)
  15. Eternal Fatalist

Encore

  1. Subversives
  2. Confetti (The Lemonheads cover)
  3. Bleed a Little While Tonight (with a bit of Walk on the Wild Side by Lou Reed)
  4. Rosy and Grey

 


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On the eve of 2018

I’m not sure how many times we were asked if we were going to the Rainbow Rhythm New Year’s Eve dinner / dance. Often by the same people, multiple times.

But New Year’s Eve, for us, has traditionally been a night for consuming gourmet food, which is not exactly what’s served at the Rainbow Rhythm dinner / dance. The dance people don’t quite get that we’d rather just eat that night, nor are they generally willing to spend as much for a dinner as we are.

So what are you doing that night, instead?

To have some kind of answer, fairly early on I’d booked an 8:00 dinner at The Berlin for New Year’s Eve night. Figured we could cancel it if something better came up, but at least we’d have somewhere to go that night if not. We’d been the previous two years and found it pretty good.

But The Berlin experienced a shakeup earlier this month: Founding chef, Jonathan Gushue—who’s become a bit of a celebrity—decided to leave. He’s headed back to his native Newfoundland to be head chef at a high-end restaurant on Fogo Island. In his place they’ve brought in Ben Lillico, who is all of 23 years old (and looks about 18). Despite his youth, though, he does have some great experience, including a stint at Langdon Hall.

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The Berlin’s new chef

Without intending it, we ended up trying Lillico’s cooking just a few days after he started at The Berlin—at the admittedly easier meal of brunch. Brunch there includes your choice of hot items from the kitchen, along with the buffet table, and we were very happy with the meal.

As New Year’s approached, The Berlin announced that they would be offering a 7-course meal for $95 that night, which sounded intriguing. Initially seating times were listed as 5, 7, 9, and 11, so I switched our 8:00 reservation to 9:00. Then they decided that 2.5 hours might be a more comfortable amount of time for that many courses, and offered seating at 4:30 (!), 7:00, and 9:30. Hence, we would be dining at 9:30.

We had to figure out how to get there and back, since they were offering wine pairings (for $50), which meant that we both planned to be drinking. We tried to reserve taxis, but the local companies don’t take reservations for New Year’s Eve night. Over the Limit (who drive your car home with another car following) were already booked up. We figured Uber’s surge pricing would make that a pretty expensive option.

And so, despite it being -19C that night (air temperature, no wind chill), we took the bus. Buses are free on New Year’s Eve, and Grand River Transit has this very good route planning thing that tells you exactly how to get from point A to point B, including all walks and bus transfers involved. We bundled up, and darned if the buses weren’t exactly on schedule the whole way, such that we arrived exactly when Grand River Transit said we would, at 9:12 pm.

We had a short wait before our preferred table, facing the kitchen, was ready. As we sipped our bubbly, Jean noted that the entire kitchen staff seemed to have changed. We asked our waiter about it later, and he confirmed that when Jonathan said he was leaving, pretty much everyone else in the kitchen gave notice, too.

But the fact the crew had only been together for three weeks by this point did not show in any stumbles in either food or service. Really, I think this was the best New Year’s Eve dinner we’ve ever had at The Berlin.

The amuse was bay scallops escabeche (we asked, and it means cooked in an acidic mixture) with pickled root vegetables and crème fraiche. The seafood had lovely flavor and texture. Next up was this lovely item:

Foie Gras Terrine - Fantastic!

Which was a foie gras terrine with beets and celery. Rich and fantastic. It was served with 2 oz. of Southbrook Farms Whimsy, which is a sherry style drink. It made for an effective contrast with the foie gras.

Truffle Mushroom Soup

The incredible truffle mushroom soup was also served with a contrasting wine, a Chablis from Burgundy. Not a match I would have thought of, but it worked really well.

Seared Ling Cod in Smoked pork Broth adn Sunchoke mask - The mash was the highlight

The ling cod served next was fine, but the highlight of the dish was actually the mashed sunchokes, as set off by the lentils and smoked pork broth. The wine here was a delicious 2015 Sangiovese, light enough to not overpower the fish but picking up on the smoky flavors.

We had a pear palette cleanser next.

Pear and Ice

And the main course was venison prepared in caul fat, which (we asked) made it extremely tender and less “gamey” tasting than venison normally is. That was served with roast parsnips, onions, and juniper sauce. The wine served was a bigger red, a Gingondas from the Southern Rhone.

Venison

That left dessert, which was this absolutely incredible chocolate torte with raspberry sorbet. It was served with Southbrook Farms Framboise, a raspberry wine that is very well suited to chocolate.

Chocolate torte and Rasberry Sorbet

We managed to finish up somewhat before midnight, which meant that we got through to the taxi company with no delay. (There was no suitable bus route back home at this time of day.) That also meant that we rang in the new year while still in the cab, but there you go.

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Three days of socializing

We had someone over for dinner last Thursday, a not-that-common event that we did memorialize in photos. However, he did bring flowers—some lovely orchids—and Jean used those to experiment with close-up photography.

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As the main course, I made Garlicky Lamb Chops. This recipe (follow the link) is so simple and fast, but turns out so well: You just dip the chops in a mix of fresh rosemary, garlic, salt, and pepper, then pan-fry them in olive oil.

One of the sides was Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Walnuts & Dates, though I used raisins instead. Fortunately, our guest liked Brussels sprouts; not everyone does. This turned out well also; these do well roasted, and adding raisins, walnuts, red wine vinegar, and honey produces a tasty results.

I also roasted some potatoes—I just winged that “recipe”.

Dessert was Cherry Fool, and I can’t find the recipe online, even though it came from LCBO magazine. Basically cherries in whipped cream with icing sugar and almond extract, though. And I used mixed berries that included cherries instead of just cherries.

Friday we were supposed to go see TransCanada Highwaymen with some friends, and I was really looking forward to it. This is a group made up of Chris Murphy of Sloan, Stephen Page of Barenaked Ladies, Craig Northey of The Odds, and Moe Berg of Pursuit of Happiness. They were to do songs by all of those bands, while regaling us with tales of life as semi-famous Canadian rock star. Doesn’t that sound great?

I’m sure it would have been. Unfortunately, Northey broke his ankle playing hockey about a week before the show, which then got cancelled. (Though as I keep telling people, I don’t know why he couldn’t still sit down to play guitar and sing.)

We decided to go out anyway and revisit TWH Social, present home of a former favourite chef. We’d found the place a bit loud on previous visits, but it didn’t as bad this time, at least for the first part of the evening. And I was very happy with my food.

Not enough drink to hide the fact that he's eyeing my squid!

Squid with tomatoes and roast potatoes, a speciality of this chef

Sweet Lamb Chop with a plate in the foreground

Grilled lamb chops with sweet potato and mushroom saute

So yes, that’s lamb two days in a row for me.

Jean started with a Caprese salad, then had the gnocchi with sage butter and chicken broth. This was a different gnocchi recipe than what the chef had made at the previous restaurant, and Jean didn’t think it was an improvement.

Saturday we got our live music fix. Other friends had invited us to go see Whitehorse, a band neither Jean and I were familiar with before getting tickets. But I had been listening to them since, and they are pretty good.

Before the show, Centre in the Square offered a $30 three-course dinner in the Member’s Lounge, catered by Borealis Restaurant. We decided to do that, and it was great. First was a kale Caesar, then a paella, then—I forget what dessert was. All good, though, and we also enjoyed the drink list (among us, we sampled orange wine, Pinot Noir, champagne cocktail, Scotch), though it was more premium-priced than the food.

The show was done in “On Stage” format, meaning that the whole audience, and the band, and a bar, were up on the very large Centre in Square stage, instead of the usual “band on stage, audience in theatre seats”. It was pretty cool.

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Ready to rock!

It was a good show. Opening act Begonia had a lovely voice and an entertaining manner, a combination that reminded me of Jann Arden (or Adele).

Begonia

Begonia

And Whitehorse did some of their best-known songs (I assume they were? At least, at this point I recognized a number of them), reminisced about the early support given them by Waterloo, and talked of causes important to them, like supporting sex trade workers.

Whitehorse

Whitehorse are a husband and wife team, this night supported by a band

They also threw in a couple of covers. One was of AC/DC’s “Back in Black”, in tribute to Malcolm Young. Another was of Neil Young’s “Ohio”.

(Should have zoomed in a lot earlier than I did on the video. Not used to this taking videos at concerts thing.)

Then on Sunday, we were total hermits.


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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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The Royal Tour Part 3: Exploring Canadian history in Kingston

We’d been to Kingston before, but not stayed for any length of time. This year we booked three nights at Hotel Belvedere, which dates back to 1880. This meant some awkwardness in the room design, like a tiny bathroom with no counter space, but overall the room was spacious. (It was also equipped  with modern conveniences like air conditioning and wifi.)

Our stay included a light breakfast that we ate on the front patio each morning, which was quite pleasant. And it was just a short walk from there to downtown.

Kingston - Houses with Character

Not the Belvedere Hotel, but in the same neighbourhood

The first day we just got acquainted with the downtown and the waterfront.

Arriving in Kingston!

Over the next two days, we took in a number of tours.

First up was a tour of Kingston City Hall. It was originally built with the thought that Kingston was to be Canada’s capital, and so that it would serve as Parliament. Of course, this was not to be. Queen Victoria had other ideas, and declared the hamlet of Ottawa the capital. Canada’s Parliament was built there.

That left Kingston with a bit of a dilemma over what to do with this large, ornate building. Over the years, a number of business have been housed there: banks, night clubs, dry goods. More recently it has served as City Hall. But it’s a challenge to maintain, because a city doesn’t have the same budget for this that the whole country does. So they have to do fund-raising to tackle renovations of parts of it, and when touring, you can see signs of what still needs work, like the stained carpeting.

City Hall, was almost our Parliament!

Still a pretty attractive building, though: Kingston City Hall

A market was also set up outside it on the Thursday. I purchased a couple of hand-dyed T-shirts there, to join my Queen + Adam Lambert concert T-shirt and the two shirts Jean purchased at MEC in Toronto. (We then declared a shirt moratorium.)

The next tour, in the afternoon, was of Kingston Penitentiary, a maximum security facility that closed just a few years ago, as it no longer met modern standards. A young tour guide led us around and explained some aspects of the facility (the visitor’s area, the family visits housing, escape attempts), but at many points we were greeted by someone who used to work there. They explained some aspect of the institution: the history of “the cage”, the rules behind solitary confinement, the workshop protocols, the mental health institution. (Tours run every 15 minutes, and it occurs to me it must get really old for these people to repeat these lines so often during the day.)

The Cage in the PEN

The Cage at the Pen

Cell Section

For security, these barred doors are no longer used in Canadian federal prisons

Pen Art

A mural created (with permission) by one of the prisoners in one of the solitary cells

It was interesting, and while it didn’t make me want to go to prison, it was not that depressing—other than the solitary “yard”, which was really a sad, tiny, enclosed thing compared with the general yard.

There is also a penitentiary museum across the street, but we decided we’d had enough prison facts for one day.

On Friday we visited Bellevue House, where Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, lived for about a year. It’s considered a federal park, so was free to enter for Canada 150, but we decided to pay extra for a tour. I would recommend that; the guide (Harrison) was very good, and you get more out of your visit from what they tell you.

Sir John A Macdonald's Abode

Bellevue (nice view) because it does have a river view, though a bit of a tree-obstructed one these days

We definitely learned quite a bit about Sir John A. and his times. He lived here with his sickly wife and two sons, one of whom died quite young. But they also covered what happened afterward with his political career—the good (Confederation, promoting votes for women) and the bad (residential schools, the Chinese head tax)—along with his personal life. For example, he did marry again after his first wife died, and they had a daughter who was encephalitic, but still an important part of Sir John A.’s life.

Sir John A MacDonald's Boudoir

The master bedroom at Bellevue

They also have nice gardens on the grounds at Bellevue, where they grow food used at the museum, but also purchased by some local restaurants and donated to the food bank.

That left Fort Henry to explore, on Friday afternoon. We arrived in time for the cadet’s parade and firing of the cannon (which I guess is not so hard—they do this several times a day).

A Blast for the Past

I found that suprisingly interesting to watch. The military formations are so graceful and musical.

Fort Henry

And the goat is not sacrificed to the gods of war

Here we did not go for the guided tour, though, but just looked through the exhibits and the interesting little shops on-site ourselves.

Dining

For its fairly modest population of about 130,000, Kingston has a great selection of restaurants. One of favourite meals here was at the venerable Chez Piggy, established by late musician  Zal Yanovsky. The room upstairs is very nice, the service was excellent, and we quite enjoyed the food.

Shrimp n Stuff

Scallops in vanilla cream sauce

Eyes off my Duck!

Duck confit

We also liked spin-off restaurant Pan Chancho, where we had lunch twice. It’s a coffee shop and bakery that also serves food (such as an excellent gazpacho).

But our next most-favourite was probably Tango Nuevo, a tapas wine bar that we tried out because it looked as though it would be good. (It’s not in Where to Eat in Canada.) Appearances were not deceiving: it’s a nice-looking place, service was great, and all six tapas we ordered were delightful.

Gnochi Knockout ... it was that good!

The gnocchi may have been the highlight

They also had an interesting (in a good way) Turkish dessert.

Aqua Terra aspires to be casual fine dining. It’s a lovely space, and gracious service (although the wine arrival timing is just a bit off), but the food isn’t quite up to “fine dining” standards. Not bad by any means, but not outstanding.

Aqua Terra

This seafood ravioli did not blow me away

And then there was Le Chien Noir. Lordy.

It’s billed as French bistro, but was a bit more raucous bar-y than we were expecting. What can you do. We were seated, given menus, and with some debate, we figured out what we wanted.

And then we waited. And waited. Like half an hour, and no one even took our drink order.

The waiter did apologize for the delay, but then seem completely flummoxed when Jean asked for wine suggestions for his food. “We don’t really do that,” said the waiter. What?

Jean just ordered the wines he’d been considering. Shortly after putting that in, the waiter came back and said they were out of the special Jean had ordered as his main. So Jean picked another, then said he’d reconsider his original wine choice after the appetizer.

We did get the wines we’d ordered for the appetizer of tuna tartar we planned to share. Then we waited. The waiter said the bread was just coming out of the oven. Then we waited. We eventually did get some bread, which was warm, but also noticed that the table next to us, which had arrived later, already had their appetizers. Hmm.

Finally some food arrived. It was our main courses! “We never got our appetizers,” I pointed out. The waiter apologized. “My fault,” he said. (Duh.) “Wines are on the house.”

Will say that the mains… Were really very good. And not only because we’d waited an hour and half for them. The duck cassoulet I had was very well prepared and with creative flavours. But man, the experience!

It wasn’t quite done. The next day I got an Open Table email asking me why I hadn’t shown up for my reservation at Le Chien Noir. They hadn’t properly checked us in on arrival. (This, too, was later sorted out.)