Monday, December 29, 2014

Good food and vacinations during Christmas week

Our Christmas festivities started the day before Boxing Day when we had some friends over for afternoon tea. This may sound like an odd thing to do in Spain but I think our Edinburgh friend and his Spanish wife enjoyed starting out with bubbly cava with lovely egg sandwiches - with no crusts of course -and open faced gravlax with dill. For those of you unfamiliar with gravlax, it is pickled salmon from Norway with a sprinkling of dill on top. All this was followed by Assam tea, or Aryuvedic tea made up of cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and red peppers to name a few things in it. Mince pies and Christmas cake with a thick coating of marzipan topped with icing decorated with snowmen made a fine accompaniment to the tea.

It was an early start for us on Christmas Eve day, as we had to drive to a hospital in Girona for our hepatitis shots. The hospital had a much calmer air than some of the North American hospitals we have encountered and it served really good espresso. The doctor took lots of time to chat with us. One thing that we were happy to get was a prescription for diarrhoea. This may not be Christmassy but it may help you sometime. Basically, it is charcoal that swells in your stomach once you swallow it. Charcoal, being absorbent, gives you some much needed help. We could have used this on some of our previous trips. The doctor, who spent much time in Africa, shared his observations on just how bad things were economically. Apparently the Chinese are ruining Africa with their shoddy imports of things like bikes and other equipment. There are no spare parts for them as they have been gathered up. A bike may last a couple of months before it has to be replaced thus becoming a costly proposition.
Shots completed, and refueled with more coffee, we headed into the center of Girona for a quick visit. We took a short walk into the old town crossing the river and admiring the views of the multicoloured houses. From there we just meandered about eventually discovering a little Italian shop where the lady made her own panettone, pesto and pasta. Last night we ate the pasta with pesto and I think it was one of the best pastas I've ever tasted. We stopped for lunch at a tiny little bistro specializing in seafood. We asked for the Menu del Dia. Good news, it came only in Catalan. This usually means that you are going to get a really good but inexpensive lunch. The server brought us a little glass of celery soup with baby squids on top to start with. Then we had a beautiful green salad followed by grilled sea bass that had been cooked on a bed of potatoes. Dessert was a baked apple. For €14 each we got all of this, wine, water and coffee. What a deal!

On Christmas Day the usual bar that serves coffee was shut. Finally, we found the only place that was open. We don't go there too often as it is a bit creepy. There is a very white, old lady, who always sits in the same seat, tends to stare and doesn't say a thing.  She is part of the family that owns the bar. Her sister or daughter, who is also old, serves the coffee. Once you have finished the old lady wordlessly springs out of her seat to clean your cups away. I greeted her with a loud, "Merry Christmas," which almost caused her to crack a smile. We missed the Sardanas - Catalan folk dance with accompanying band - in one of the squares as we got chatting with a Dutch couple from a nearby village.

Back home we prepared our Christmas dinner but there was a slight problem. Where were the parsnips? We searched the house high and low for them but they had disappeared. We came to the conclusion that we had left them at the market. It didn't really matter as we had lots of other veg to accompany our duck breast with Grand Marnier sauce. Our dinner later that day came to a perfect ending with plum pudding. Thank goodness for Amazon uk.

Yesterday was wet with the wind gathering strength. This can become quite tiresome as it makes walking anywhere difficult. Today the winds continued so we decided to go for Sunday lunch to Empuriabrava, our little Venice of Catalonia. As we reached the top of the mountain that we live on, we could see snow-capped mountains not too far away. In fact the snow level is down to 1000 meters. We stopped at the French bakery for some fig bread. The lady now is making a few dishes for takeaway including sanglier - wild boar - in a stew. Although we hear the hunters near our house shooting the wild boar, we never find any to buy but today we were lucky. The French lady explained to us that the Spanish don't really eat wild boar whereas the French do. In fact everything in the shop is made with French products. This is one meal we are looking forward to.

Blue Sky is our favourite restaurant, run by a husband and wife team. Sarah is from England and Angelo from Italy. It was Sarah's mum who did our Christmas baking with ingredients brought from England. We shared a salad with lettuce, endive, corn, pickles, celeriac and tomatoes then Seamus had porcini mushroom risotto and I had cannelloni with meat, foie gras, mushrooms and hazelnuts followed by yogurt with fresh red fruit. Unfortunately, by the time we left the wind had picked up again making it impossible to go for a walk. We have two more days of the wind. Cabin fever is setting in.

Monday, December 15, 2014

No pre-Christmas frenzy here

It is Sunday and deadly quiet in the village. Usually at this time of the year the Port is more lively but this year things are quieter than ever. Is it the weather, which has been a bit mixed lately? Is it the ‘crisis’ leaving people unable to afford to come here, stroll around and have a meal out? Are there too many Christmas activities going on elsewhere? We were in our nearby shopping town, Figueres,  the other day. How different it was from Stockholm, where people were almost in a shopping frenzy and everyone carried one or two shopping bags. In Figueres, it didn't look like a lot of shopping was taking place.

A few weeks ago before the Independence vote, I recounted the story of the Spanish army person, who took down and destroyed the Catalan Independence flag that was flying atop the castle ruins at the top of the mountain. It turns out that the soldier was off duty when he did this. It did result in a flurry of apologies to the mayor and the town. He shouldn't have done it but it wasn't a ploy by the Spanish army.

As for the informal Independence vote that took place a few weeks ago, nothing much is happening. Fifty-two per cent of those who voted were in favour of independence. Since the vote wasn't legal this is not recognized by Spain. In fact the leaders of Catalunya are being threatened with jail because of their stance. Stay tuned for more.

Monday, December 8, 2014

A coastal walk and a surprise visitor

December has arrived and with it life has returned to the village. The Spanish holidays yesterday and tomorrow have brought lots of people who have their second homes here or in other words, the rich from Barcelona.

Fortunately, the clouds have been swept out by a Tramuntana, the wind from over the Pyrenees, bringing clear blue skies. As an added bonus we finally found a place to walk that is somewhat sheltered from the brutal winds that can knock you to your knees. Our walk this afternoon was along the Ronda, the walking pathway close to the sea. It was quite exhilarating watching all the waves come crashing in to shore and the horse heads dancing in to the bay.

We had a short visit from Seamus' elder daughter this week, who was in Madrid on business. It was a whirlwind trip but we managed a tour of Dali's museum in Figueres and one of my favourite spots, his house in Port Lligat. We had several good meals but the best was at Compartir, which means sharing, in Cadaques. This restaurant is run by three chefs who used to work at El Bulli. They use lots of foam in their cooking. Our meal started with Campari with foam on top made from fruit. We had tuna cannelloni, raw tuna wrapped around veggies in a delicious sauce. My favourite, which is presented in a bowl is an egg cooked in a potato and truffle sauce. The potato covers the whole thing. It is almost like a soup. My description doesn't really do the food justice but you can see what some of the presentation looked like from these pictures. It was all very yummy.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Massive rains make quite a mess

As we drove home from the airport in the rain we could see tape marking road closures. It wasn't until the next day, when we looked at the beach that we could see the extent of the storms that had hit the area while we were gone. The beach was covered in logs, wood and lots of debris. This is a beach where normally a dog owner would be lucky to find a stick.

On Monday morning the water was still lapping over the main street in the Port. Tuesday is our market day in Figueres. We passed streams coming down the mountain, water nearly running out of ditches on to the road and fields resembling lakes. You could boat on the grassy part of the roundabouts. Apparently the road into Figueres had been closed on Saturday. River beds that had been bone dry for two years were now flowing in torrents.

Just when we thought that this house was finally sorted out, we discovered more problems. We were preparing the spare bedroom for a guest, only to find rain damage in several places and a tiny hole in the ceiling. The leak is coming from the terrace but the ceiling will have to be repaired. Although, we don't have to deal directly with the builder, the last leak did quite a bit of damage and took a year to be repaired properly. Mañana is this guy's motto.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Christmas village a fun ending to great trip

Since we had a late afternoon flight we decided to walk along the Strandvagen passing all the tour boats, including one boat that was selling only marzipan. We were going to the Christmas market at the Skansen zoo.

Once we arrived at the zoo we took the old funicular up the hill to be greeted by lots of noise coming from the market. It seemed that everyone was in the middle of the square doing some funny jump around dance that was led by men in traditional dress. The market itself was huge. There were stalls with Christmas decorations and crafts, bread, meats and cheeses. We watched as a man made sugar-coated almonds, and we bought some while they were still hot. We drank some traditional, delicious cold drink that tasted a bit like beer but fruitier. As well as sweets, food, festive preserves and mulled wine and toys we watched home brewing in action. The beer was made in a huge metal pot over an open fire. It had a very nice taste. We watched as traditional Swedish delicacies such as savoury pancakes and grilled herrings were made. There were lots of people enjoying their day out.

We went off in search of the animals and found some sea lions, deer and the children's zoo. Today the animals are mostly Nordic. From my visit here many years ago I remember a much bigger zoo with lots of particularly amorous animals.

As well as the zoo a miniature historical Sweden was reflected both in the buildings and their surroundings – from the Skåne farmstead in the south to the Sami camp in the north. The venues illustrated the different social conditions in which people lived in Sweden between the 16th century and the first half of the 20th century. You could visit a building where flatbread was being made or see a goldsmith in action.

We retraced our steps back to the hotel. It seemed that everyone was out walking and really walking briskly. Although we wanted to catch the trolley with the separate coffee car, we continued our walk. What a great idea to jump on the trolley and have a coffee.

Stockholm is a lovely place to visit. It is a beautiful city with great food. It is also very expensive.

Our day had not yet ended. As the plane just barely touched down in Barcelona, we immediately went straight up again. The previous plane was still on the active runway and couldn't find its way off the runway in the rain. We were going up exactly parallel to a plane on the next runway taking off. After bouncing around for a while in the dense clouds we eventually touched down in one piece.

Great food and scenery on three-hour boat tour

For our last full day in Stockholm we decided to get out on the water and take a three-hour cruise on the Stockholm, a ship built in the 1930s.  Stockholm is built on hundreds of islands, large and small, and this was a great way to get a different view of the area. In fact there are 30,000 islands making up the archipelago.

On my last visit to Stockholm many years ago in the 1970s, I visited an island in the archipelago with some Swedes, but that time not in a lovely boat but in a little motor boat. I remember it being quite rough. We had gone to a supermarket to buy the makings of a picnic for four people. To this day I remember it costing the staggering amount of over $70. No one lived on the island except for a few not too friendly steers. I enjoyed the picnic but the most memorable thing was swimming in the Baltic. The water was a very cold 56 degrees and it felt like ice was hitting my body.

Today's trip was very different. We had opted for the brunch cruise and were seated in a beautiful dining room with huge picture windows. In fact the sun was shining. Until November 28 there had been only 2.8 hours of sunshine in the whole month. We felt very lucky.

We passed waterside houses both opulent and modest, each with their own jetty. It seems to be the place to live, either permanently or in the summer, with access to the waters of the Baltic at the bottom of your garden. Other islands were totally uninhabited. It doesn’t take long before you can escape the city’s crowds.

At each place setting there was a sheet of paper telling us how to attack the smorgasbord. We didn't know what to expect but what a sumptuous lunch. There were lots of salads, delicious yellow beets, herring, cold meats and one of my very favourite things, gravlax — raw salmon cured in salt, sugar and dill. Served with a mild mustard sauce it is really out of this world. Of course there were lingonberries to serve with your food. There was a lovely potato dish of shaved potatoes roasted with herbs, new potatoes, chicken, meat and vegetables. I must admit I was more drawn to the gravlax.

We grazed our way to Vaxholm, where a sixteenth century castle still remains. It wasn't until 1912 that houses were allowed to be built in anything other than wood. The reason being that you could burn everything if invaders attacked.

As we made the return trip to Stockholm it clouded over and we could see the sun getting lower in the sky. Nightfall is about 3:30 at this time of year. But for us it was time for dessert. What a spread. I had some fruit but then discovered a jug with blackberries, lingonberries and raspberries. There were lots of cakes and tarts but the fruit with a touch of very light creme anglaise was perfect for me.

Later that evening we finished the day at Matt's apartment, where we had a salad and some Swedish cheese. Matt encouraged us to try a Swedish Christmas tradition, blue cheese with some thin ginger biscuits. It was amazing as the various tastes exploded in your mouth.

It was lovely seeing Kate and Matt in Stockholm. What a great visit.  

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Gamla Stan - the historic and colourful heart of old Stockholm

It was another cloudy day as we set off for Gamla Stan with Kate and Matt. Our first stop was to watch the skaters spinning around an artificial rink. We thought about coming back later and renting skates but never quite got round to it. Next to the rink was our first Christmas market with quite an assortment of stalls selling Christmas cards, decorations and some cheeses. You may be the recipient of one of the Christmas cards, something we never see in Spain.

We crossed the bridge to Gamla Stan while admiring all the beautiful buildings. Each stone building stood out from its neighbours. They were all quite magnificent. Gamla Stan is where Stockholm was founded in 1252. All of the narrow cobbled streets were pedestrian friendly. After a quick coffee in an ancient building with a very low roof we explored another Christmas market. This one had the usual Christmas decorations including some quite funny elves to hang on your tree. There were lotteries, a place to throw something and win huge Toblerone bars, lovely cheeses and breads, stalls selling some colourful, quite sheik hats and almonds cooking in sugar and then served hot. A lady was offering samples of chocolate-covered marzipan in various flavours. I must admit I couldn't resist buying the dark chocolate covered raspberry and liquorice marzipan with salt. It may sound odd but it was delicious.

We continued along the narrow winding cobblestone streets, with their buildings in so many different shades of gold, stopping to browse in the little shops selling clothing, things for the home, candies, knitwear and souvenirs.

There are several beautiful churches and museums in Gamla Stan, including Sweden’s national cathedral, Stockholm Cathedral, and the Nobel Museum. The largest of the attractions in the district is the Royal Palace, one of the largest palaces in the world with over 600 rooms. It was so nice meandering through the streets that we didn't tour any of these buildings. I remembered the Nobel Museum from my last visit to Stockholm but there have been many prize winners since then.

After lunch we headed back towards Matt's place walking through more busy pedestrian shopping areas. H&M are Swedish and there is one in almost every block, something like Starbucks in North America. The stores were busy and people were busy doing their Christmas shopping. Every store and street was filled with Christmas decorations. Again this is something we don't see much of in Spain.

Later that evening we joined up again for dinner. So far I had enjoyed all the Swedish food I had eaten and this was no exception. I felt a bit guilty but I had lovely cooked smoked reindeer for dinner. What a delicious way to end a day.

Stockholm's Vasa museum truly incredible

Our first full day in Stockholm got off to an excellent start with crepes with lingonberry jam for breakfast. Lingonberries are a small red fruit from small shrubs found in tundra vegetation. They are a staple of the Swedish diet and they have them with all kinds of foods.

We linked up with Kate and Matt and walked along the harbour passing many tour boats before we ended up at the Vasa Museum. The Vasa was a  64-gun ship commissioned in the 1600s by King Gustav II. On Sunday, the 10th of August, 1628, Vasa lay rigged and ready for sea. Ballast, guns and ammunition were all on board. On the quays and shores along Strömmen, an excited public waited to watch the ship leave Stockholm.

Over a hundred crewmen were on board, as well as women and children. The crew had permission to take family and guests along for the first part of the passage through the Archipelago. For the first few hundred meters, Vasa was warped along the waterfront with cables from the shore. Sailors climbed the rigging to set four of Vasa’s ten sails. A salute was fired, and Vasa slowly began her maiden voyage.

Once Vasa came out from under the lee of the Södermalm cliffs, the sails could catch the wind, but the ship was tender and heeled over to port, then heeled again, even farther. Water rushed in through the open gun-ports and the ship’s fate was decided. Vasa sank after 1300 meters.

Why did she sink? The underwater part of the hull was too small and the ballast insufficient in relation to the rigging and cannon. The leaders of the inquest believed that the ship was well built but incorrectly proportioned. The Vice Admiral had been present before the ship sailed, when the captain demonstrated how unstable the ship was by having 30 men run back and forth across the upper deck. On their third pass, the ship was ready to capsize at the quay. The blame can be shared among several people including the shipbuilder, captain, admiral and the king.

The Vasa was lifted in stages with the final lift in April 1961. For 17 years, Vasa was sprayed with polyethylene glycol — PEG —a chemical compound that replaces the water in waterlogged wood to prevent shrinkage and cracking. The current Vasa Museum opened in 1990.

Ninety-eight per cent of the Vasa is preserved. There are still carpenters working on the ship clinging to scaffolding as they exchange the deteriorating iron bolts. The museum is on several levels giving an excellent close-up view of the ship and its intricately decorated wood carvings. On each level of the museum there were models and displays to show the shipyards, life on board and a hands-on computer-generated model that allowed you to change the parameters of the ballast and design to see how the Vasa sank.

One of my favourite displays was of the skeletons of those who died onboard. Many of the skeletons revealed malnutrition early in life. Several of the skulls had been forensically reconstructed so that you could see what the sailors actually looked like. The Vasa Museum is definitely one of the best museums that I have ever visited.

Our explorations had made us quite hungry. Matt, who is working in Stockholm, and knows all the good places to eat, led us to a historical house, where we had the most delicious soup with loads of lobster and shrimp.

Later that evening we went to Sodermalm for a traditional Swedish dinner. There were two choices of menu to follow. I chose Skane, which is in the south of Sweden. The server was a delightful Australian lady, who couldn't resist a Swedish man she met in Australia and who is now her husband. She wouldn't actually say what the first course was. It was listed as carrot, celery, parsnip and potato. The dish came with little bits of the slightly cooked vegetables and parsnip balls. A consommé was added and it made a beautiful soup. I tasted Seamus' elk and it was melt-in-your-mouth good. For the second course I had herring with lingonberries, cress and potato. This was followed by cooked apples with homemade cinnamon ice cream and dried raspberries. What a meal! The Swedes certainly know how to eat. Thank goodness we did lots of walking.

We wrap warmly for visit with friends in Stockholm

As soon as we arrived at Stockholm airport we felt the cold. After a short twenty minutes on the well appointed modern Arlanda Express, we were right downtown. We were here to visit relatives from the States, Kate and Matt. On the drive to the hotel it was wonderful to see all the Christmas decorations, especially the huge Christmas moose.

We linked up with them in a bistro near the hotel, where I had the most delicious halibut in a very light red wine sauce with lentils. It sounds weird but was delicious. Then it was back to the bar in our hotel for cocktails. Mine was a non alcoholic basil and ginger drink. The bottom of the glass was packed with really fresh looking basil. They must grow it in greenhouses.

Since we didn't take any pictures of the bar, I refer you to Kate's blog, chroniclesofacountrygirl Kate is a wonderful photographer and I'm sure you will enjoy her take on Stockholm.