Newsletter Signup Now Available

I’ve added a feature to this blog. Now, readers will have the option to signup for a newsletter which will arrive weekly and feature headlines and post summaries. If want a friendly reminder when new posts are added, signup for the newsletter using the signup widget located on the right side menu. The newsletter will also allow readers to quickly scan the headlines of my new posts for those they are interested and allow readers to click thru to read the full post text.

Nataraj Decadente

img_0011

Alright everyone, brace yourselves— this one’s gonna be a big one!

After one last beer at the 100 Montaditos in the airport, we boarded our plane for what was a pretty uneventful flight to Lisbon. After we landed however, things changed decidedly on that front— namely, we got lost in the airport for over an hour..

Chalk it up to asking the wrong questions, receiving the wrong directions, a lack of clear and obvious signage in the Lisbon airport, or a case of the travel brain; whatever the reason, we ended up standing in the wrong line for over half an hour, finally getting our passports stamped and walking for another five or ten minutes before realizing that we had not exited the airport at all, but were stuck in the departures terminal. We finally found someone to give us directions, went through another passport check (this time with absolutely no else one around), discovered that at the previous check we had actually been cleared to exit Portugal without even having entered it, and then finally burst out of our airport purgatory, and grabbed the subway to our Airbnb in Bairro Alto, a central district in Lisbon.

The whole reason for us being in Lisbon—and perhaps even Europe, actually— was that the city was playing host to the 2016 Web Summit, Europe’s largest tech conference. One of James’ friends, Ashwin, had gotten two passes to the conference, and at his invitation James had decided our trip would culminate in Lisbon, attending the conference. Ashwin had actually flown into Lisbon a little earlier in the day than us, so we headed to meet him at a little cafe before checking in to our Airbnb. I need to mention here that after getting off the subway, we had to go up at least 6 long flights of stairs. While I would have been content to do the smart thing— to let the conveniently-provided escalators do most of the work for me—James decided to take matters in his own hands (or… legs..) and decided now was the time for a forced march up several hundred feet of steps. What seemed like hours later, I finally caught my breath (after having lost it for a shamefully long time) and we met up with Ashwin, had a bite to eat, then headed off to the Airbnb. Once inside, we pressed Ashwin into service as a neutral arbiter of justice— we had him flip a coin to determine who’d have to sleep on the pull-out couch for the week (I won, and got the bed, which I took to be fitting retribution for the episode with the stairs earlier), then we kicked back and shared the bottle of wine our host had left us before heading out for a walk.

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

Lisbon is a crazy beautiful place. Built on “seven hills” (but isn’t every other city?) and bisected by the river Tagus, it is chock-full of scenic views, beautiful courtyards, magnificent old architecture, and great places to eat and drink. Now, it may just be Bairro Alto and the old town centre, but we found unbelievable imagery everywhere, even just walking around in search of a meal. If only our first dinner in Lisbon was that good! Alas, it was fairly mediocre— we just walked up to a little restaurant in our neighbourhood and gave it a shot, but when the only people in a restaurant are tourists, that appears to be a bad sign. James and Ashwin each ordered an entree but I, not feeling terribly hungry, simply went for an appetizer of chorizo sausage. It came to the table as a ball of flame, a clay dish with the sausage resting over a pool of fiery lighter fluid. After the inferno had subsided the proprietor himself sliced it for me. We all thought he was going to slice just a few pieces off— you know, for show—but instead to our bemusement he spent two or three minutes slicing the whole. entire. thing, in complete silence no less. Despite the overly extravagant production, the sausage tasted just fine, thankfully lacking any notes of butane that might have accompanied the garlic and paprika.

The next morning, we took it easy and slept in, before heading out for brunch at a restaurant James found online. Turns out the place had a spectacular view, and provided an even more spectacular meal, with the best fresh fruit I’ve ever eaten at a restaurant. After taking our time and soaking it all in, we walked around a bit and continued to admire the incredible views around almost every corner before heading back to our Airbnb to plan out the rest of our day. Ashwin was interested in going to the Museum of the Orient, and James and I were more than happy to accompany him; it was down near the docks and shipping yards, and the walk there gave us a broader view of the city, including the 25 de Abril Bridge, a massive, Golden Gate Bridge copycat. Though the museum purports to give visitors a sense of Portugal’s rich history of exploration and trade, the exhibitions that were open were underwhelming, and the whole permanent collection—full of treasures from all over Asia and India— was displayed in a fairly demure fashion, every piece was behind glass, against black backgrounds and black walls. After awhile, we all felt, it got a little tiresome, and we wished there had been better lighting— the pot lights made it hard to see the details in the artifacts. That said, it was a pretty pleasant way to spend a few afternoon hours; when we were done we took the subway back to our neck of the woods. With nothing much else on the agenda we decided to relax until dinner, for which we had already picked out a hip place nearby that had good reviews.

Unfortunately, when we got there (as close to Portuguese/Spanish dinner time as we could, I swear!!) we discovered that the hip place was full to the brim, and there were no tables open for the rest of the night. Disappointed but not defeated, we did some quick thinking (read: Ashwin and James took out their phones and started Googling) and settled on another restaurant called Casa do Alentejo which was only a little ways away (read: a lonnnng walk down a steep, windy hill!), and that served Alentejan food hailing from south-central Portugal. While the food was good (we had some amazing grilled sausage to start, then J and A split a baked rabbit while I had a dish with pork and fried bread), the real allure of the place was the grand building itself, which dates back to the 1700’s, and is full of Moorish decor.

After dinner we walked around some more, talking as we went, but eventually in order to get back to our Airbnb we had to climb back up the way we had come down. One of the themes that would emerge during our time in Lisbon was a noticeable dislike for the steep inclines that was harboured by Ashwin and myself, which was itself countered by the annoying ease with which James would dart up them. After two weeks of trying to keep up with him, I resolved to grit my teeth and climb without complaint, but as a rookie, Ashwin did not know to bottle up his discomfort, and his occasional remarks only lead to derision from The Iron Man.

img_0017

Monday brought the start of WebSummit, but because the opening festivities weren’t until the evening, we decided to check out the Castelo de São Jorge, a “must-see while in Lisbon” according to the guidebook. Perched atop the city, the castle as it is today is built on top of several ruined fortifications, dating back to a Lisbon under Moorish rule (from 700 to 1100AD) and even further, to the first evidence of settlement in that area, sometime in the 2nd century BC. While the castle and its grounds were quite lovely, the view of sun-dappled Lisbon from atop the towers was simply stunning. We took our time there, talking once again about all sorts of things as we looked out over the city, before heading back down into the city once again. When we reached the busy central hub, a sort of pedestrian mall running into the city from the large, open Praça do Comércio square, Ashwin split off to look around and do some shopping, while James and I headed back in the direction of home. That evening was the opening conference pub crawl, so before meeting up with Ashwin again for that, James and I grabbed some piri-piri chicken for dinner (it was pretty great) before heading back to a bar in our area to wait for Ashwin. After he showed up, we stayed put and mingled with some other conference goers for quite awhile, until sleep started calling our names.

Over the next couple days, James and Ashwin headed off to the conference for most of the day, while I took care of some things (mostly email and trying to catch up on the blog posts— you can tell that went well….) including buying a few souvenirs, and venturing out to grab fresh buns for lunch. In the evenings, when they got back, we would grab dinner before joining the throngs of conference-goers in the midst of pub crawls around our area as we did our last night in Lisbon, or hole up in our apartment watching the US election coverage (we awoke the next morning—as did much of the world, I’m sure— to the stunning news of a Trump victory, a surprise that continued to buzz through the streets of Lisbon for the rest of our time there).

img_0015

Before I wrap up Lisbon, there are two threads— two recurring experiences— that ran through this leg of the trip, that I absolutely need to bring up. The first is my epic quest to find the best egg custard tarts (“pasteis de nata”) in the city, a quest I had dreamt up even before leaving Canada. I first had the things in Hamilton, Ontario, at a little Portuguese bakery, and as soon as I knew I was headed to “big” Portugal, I new I wanted to compare them to the real thing. For those who don’t know, these pasteis are basically a puff pastry shell filled with rich custard, the surface of which is usually caramelized and browned by the high heat of the oven. Well, as luck would have it there was a little shop right down our street that sold only these tarts, made fresh, all day (and night) long. So every morning, I would drag Ashwin and James (the only time he had to keep up with me) down to that shop for a couple tarts and a coffee before starting our day. Let me tell you, with the caveat of not having ventured wayyy out west to the neighbourhood of Belém, where they are supposed to have originated, after having tried at least five different pasteis from across the city, those tarts from the shop down the street were hands down the best. I had a few hours of heartburn every day for my indulgence, but it was unequivocally worth it.

The second mainstay of our Lisbon trip was a Portuguese cherry-flavoured liquor called ginjinha (pronounced “jin-jin-ya”) which tends to be sold from little shops—literally holes-in-the-wall— around town dedicated to selling the stuff almost exclusively. Made with sour cherries soaked in alcohol (brandy) and then liberally sweetened, this drink is delicious, and according to the Portuguese is the best way to start, well, anything— from the workday to a night of debauchery. We found ourselves in the vicinity of a ginjinha shop surprisingly often, despite the torturous flight of stairs to and from the shop closest to our apartment.

Lisbon is a marvellous place. From the unusual presence of cobblestone as a de facto paving material, to the vibrant and exciting food and nightlife scene, there were so many things that I will cherish about it, things are already tugging at me to come back someday soon. We took our time there, we didn’t push ourselves to see everything— in fact, we stayed mostly within walking distance of our Airbnb, and really got to know that area well. We soaked everything in, we slept in as late as we could (despite incessant jackhammering next door that started up every day at 8am) we talked a lot, relaxed some, and through it all we enjoyed ourselves immensely. What a fitting and happy way to cap off a truly remarkable trip! I’m going to close things off in one more blog post (to come very soon, I PROMISE), but I couldn’t have dreamed up a better finale than the five days we spent in Portugal. Oh, and rest assured— we made it through the airport and onto our plane to Amsterdam (for an overnight layover before heading home) without getting lost once, and this time we left the country having actually entered it!

img_0018

10,000 Montaditos

img_8322

We had decided to take the high-speed train from sunny Valencia to Madrid, but when we got to the train station we were shocked to find that it was far more expensive than we had figured. Without any other options however, we grit our teeth, bought our tickets, and boarded the train. It turned out to be a really fun ride, and whizzing to the heart of Spain at over 300 km/h we got to watch the orange plantations and red clay fields fly by. In no more than two hours we were walking out of Madrid’s train station, and found ourselves confronted by a magnificent sight. Truly a world-class city, Madrid is gorgeous— a bustling hub of business and culture, with a beautiful mix of old and new architecture, and all the energy of a modern metropolis dressed up in the grandeur of a London or Paris. Walking to our hotel, we cut through a large park that was immaculately maintained, filled with beautiful sculptures, gardens, and paths, and any disappointment of leaving Valencia was quickly replaced by a sense of awe.
Our hotel was modern and newly refurbished, and like everywhere we went in the city, entirely comfortable, clean, and safe. Very happy with the state of things, we deposited our stuff in the room, then went for a walk in search of one of the city’s casinos; on our way, our eyes grew wider and wider as we passed beautiful building after beautiful building, chic restaurants, and well manicured boulevards. Unfortunately we were turned away from the first casino because we wearing shorts, but we found another nearby that would accept us as we were, and headed in to take a look. It was housed in a beautiful old building, but the casino itself was fairly underwhelming, poorly laid-out and mostly devoted to slot machines and electronic roulette. Slightly disappointed, we headed back out into the city, and just walked around again for awhile, admiring our surroundings.
That evening we thought we’d try something a little different for dinner. We decided to go for Indian food, at a local place that had great reviews. The meal was delicious and filling, a nice change of pace from the more traditional Spanish food that was our usual fare. We headed back to the hotel happy and completely stuffed, and excited to make our plan for the next day. Although that plan originally had us checking out the Prado museum, we decided based on the forecast for the next couple days to spend the sunny day walking around the city, and to reserve the art museum for when it was supposed to rain.
The next morning we grabbed an empanada and a coffee as a late breakfast, then set off into the centre of town, in search of a few destinations I had picked out (yes, they’re all food related, could you guess?). We took our time walking, and leisurely strolled over to the famous Chocolateria San Gines, which specializes in churros dipped in thick hot chocolate. Once we got there it took us a sec to figure out how to order, but after watching some very giggly young women— the large packs and shorts they were wearing gave them away as fellow tourists— we figured out we had to pay first, then sit at a table and wait for a waiter to snatch up our ticket in exchange for the food. I won’t go into too much detail, but the churros were fresh and crispy, and the chocolate was quite possibly the best and most luxurious I’ve ever had— it was definitely a worthwhile excursion. After we had scarfed down all our food, we decided to cross another specialty item off our list— jamón iberico, the most famous and most prized of Spanish cured meats. In order to make things extra auspicious, I decided I’d like to get some from the oldest jamóneria (or as James was so fond of calling it, “jam-bone-eryah”) in town. Of course we managed to lose track of the time, so when we went by the shop it was closed for siesta until 5pm; in the meantime, we found a local taverna with outdoor tables and each had a glass of the house vermouth while we waited. When 5pm finally arrived, we marched over to the store, and after fumbling with my rudimentary Spanish (for which I was good-naturedly chastised by the proprietor) I managed to convey my carefully rehearsed order—”100g Jamón ibérico de bellota, por favor”— and then James and I got to watch as the man, wielding a long, thin knife, lovingly carved thin strips off the leg of jamón and placed them delicately onto a paper wrapper. For those wondering, the reason this ham is so unique is that the diet of the pig from which it comes (the free-ranging black Iberian pig, which eats only acorns) gives the meat a unique savoury nuttiness, which we found made it taste quite similar to an aged parmesan cheese. Once we had our meat all sliced, we headed over to the beautiful Royal Palace gardens to eat it; it was absolutely delicious, but because the meat was sliced so thinly, and because we got a bit excited, we each ate something like 10 pieces, which in retrospect was way too much of a good thing. After our overindulgence all we could do was head back to the hotel, and relax with some TV before bed.

img_8568

At this point I feel compelled to highlight what was perhaps the most iconic experience of our time in Madrid— and yes, as you probably guessed it does involve food, but it also involves beer as well (for a change). It actually all started on our flight out of Toronto, when a fellow passenger with whom we had been chatting recommended a particular chain of restaurants in Madrid, called 100 Montaditos. Unsure of what Montaditos were, not to mention why there needed to be 100 of them, we dutifully stored the information away and carried on with our trip. Before we got to Madrid however, we picked up a few more recommendations for the place from other sources, so by the time we arrived in the city, we made checking it out our top priority. Turns out that Montaditos are little sandwiches, of which the restaurant sells 100 different variations, all for between 1 and 2.5 euros each; the sandwiches are fairly basic, but they’re cheap, made on the spot, and they taste pretty good. The real allure of these restaurants, however, is that they sell beer for the cheapest you’ll find almost anywhere (1.5 euros a pint!), so they are almost always packed with students and travellers on a budget. We found ourselves heading for the nearest 100 Montaditos over and over again, either when we had time to kill (mostly because we absolutely couldn’t get the hang of Spanish dinner hours), or when we wanted a rest from walking (or were simply thirsty). Almost every time, we would remark to one another how great a concept these Montaditos were, and how much we wished we had something like it back home! So if there are any intrepid entrepreneurs out there looking for a hot new restaurant tip….

 

Processed with VSCOcam with 2 preset

 

Madrid is a big, beautiful city with far, far too much to see and do in three days’ time. During our time there, we did a ton of walking, a lot of marvelling at the sights, saw a couple casinos and did plenty of eating as well. Our full last day did deliver rain as promised— our only day of rain on the trip, it would turn out— so although we got positively soaked getting there, we were glad to spend it checking out the art at the Prado museum. While James and I weren’t particularly moved by most of the Renaissance and Medieval works, there were a few highlights, such as Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, and several of Goya’s paintings, that were well worth seeing in person. We finished off the day with long walk in search of dinner (we settled on a burger place that, while tasty, didn’t quite live up to our expectations of a classic North American-style burger), then packed up and got ready to head to the airport for our flight to Lisbon the next morning.

Puttin’ On The ‘Ritz’

img_8223

While in retrospect Valencia turned out to be a little shabbier than the other cities we visited, what it lacked in big-city bustle, daring modernism or old-world charm it more than made up for in warmth and in a surprising and genuine beauty that made the rest of our time there truly enjoyable.

For our second full day in town, we decided to try out the Oceanogràfic, touted as “Europe’s Largest Aquarium” and attached to the city’s central cultural complex. That complex, known as “The City of Arts and Sciences” turned out to be massive and incredibly futuristic-looking— walking through it we felt like we had stumbled into a science fiction movie— and we spent awhile admiring the architecture on our way to the aquarium at the far end. Once there, our sense of wonder turned almost immediately to disgust when we discovered that tickets to the Oceanografic were a hefty 28€, but we decided to give it a chance, so we bought them anyway. The aquarium complex was certainly large, but we ultimately found it fairly disappointing— there were exhibits from many of the seas and oceans of the world, but from the listless belugas to the rather grey palette of most of the fish exhibits, the quality and quantity of the experience just didn’t live up to our expectations. The one standout, however, was the free dolphin show, and although James and I couldn’t understand a word of what the hosts said, it was amazing to watch the trained dolphins pull off all kinds of impossibly acrobatic maneuvers. It was also almost as much fun watching the crowd take so much pleasure in doing “The Wave,” after each cycle of which they would clap and cheer for themselves, which tickled us greatly.

We were set on getting our money’s worth out of the aquarium, so we forced ourselves to stay until we were quite tired, after which we bought some dinner supplies (read: more bread, cheese, and sausage) at a nearby grocery store and then took the bus back home. James started to feel a bit under the weather, so we decided to take it easy, relaxing and watching some episodes of the 90’s Canadian TV show The Newsroom before calling it an early night.

The next morning, after a bit of a lazy start, we decided to find a breakfast place to satisfy our sudden craving for bacon and eggs. The little brunch spot we settled on promised a “full English” breakfast with freshly squeezed Valencia orange juice, and while the juice was a bit tart (but not unappealingly so) it was indeed freshly squeeze, and the rest of the breakfast was delicious. Since we were already in the old centre of town, we decided to walk around after breakfast and see the sights, after which we grabbed a coffee and some churros (turns out they’re well loved in Spain as well!) and sat in the beautiful square outside the City Hall. We had made reservations the previous day for lunch at a nearby restaurant (a necessity in order to have an authentic, slow-cooked paella) so we bode our time by watching the colourful mix of locals and tourists— some of whom were glaringly obvious… and oblivious— before making our way a few streets over for our meal. I thought we should attempt to eat some of the gambas, or giant prawns, that Spain is known for, so we ordered four of them as an appetizer, but man did we find them hard to eat. Without anyone to guide us or offer up any tips, we had a devil of a time getting the large shrimps out of their shells, and by the time we had managed to consume the small morsels of meat that our fingers had left intact, my appetite to try sucking the brains of the crustaceans— apparently the “best” part!—had completely left me. A little frustrated and ashamed by our failure with this first traditional Spanish dish, we nonetheless got excited when our second— the traditional Paella Valenciana— landed on our table, steaming in its iconic wide-bottomed pan. Unlike the version of the dish created with tourists in mind, our paella featured a more peasant-friendly array of ingredients such as rabbit, chicken, land snails, fava and green beans, but the star of the show (aptly so) was the rice. Chewy and full of flavour, the relatively thin layer of rice (the sign of a good paella, or so I’d read) was salty and delicious, and James and I agreed that we would have been happy even if the chef had left out the meat and vegetables altogether.

vscocam-photo-1

We decided to celebrate our paella conquest with chocolate truffles that the restaurant made in-house, along with a little glass of Valencian muscatel (a local, deliciously floral digestif) before heading back to our Airbnb. We knew we’d have to be up early the next day to catch our train, so once again we decided to relax and stay in for the evening, watching some more TV and chatting over some wine. The next morning we packed up our things, headed to the train station, and set our sights on Madrid!

Drum Circle

img_8371

The ride to Valencia provided some truly extraordinary views, with the Spanish coastline to our left, and hills, valleys, and picturesque little towns to our right. Although we had expected the trip to take two or three hours, it turned out that our lack of ability with the language led us to taking the slower train, which stopped at every small station along the way. At one point, after taking a disconcerting swing up away from the coast, we discovered to our dismay that we had started moving backwards! After eavesdropping on another passenger’s conversation with the conductor however, we realized that for some reason our train was only making a scheduled stop that had us backtracking a bit before continuing on to Valencia.

After that slight confusion, the rest of our trip was fairly uneventful, save for the steady stream of beautiful landscape out the windows. When we finally arrived, pulled on our packs and shuffled off the train, we were greeted by the gloriously warm sun. Valencia is a markedly different city than Barcelona, despite only being a few hours down the coast, and the walk to our Airbnb allowed us ample time to begin familiarizing ourselves to our new surroundings. Admittedly, we were a little taken aback by how dated the buildings and infrastructure looked, and I started to worry that after London and Barcelona perhaps this would be an underwhelming place to spend the next several days. That said, when we arrived we were delighted to see that all along our street, right in front of all the apartment buildings in the middle of a city, were orange trees laden with fruit! Unfortunately for us, none were ripe enough to eat, but it was a remarkable sight nonetheless.

The following morning however, James returned from his run proclaiming how beautiful the rest of the city actually was— it seemed that our Airbnb, while perfectly comfortable and safe, was in more of a working-class neighbourhood— and that the downtown core, and the giant park that runs through the city, were gorgeous. It turned out he was right, and as we walked through the winding green space (situated where a river used to flow, before it was diverted due to severe flooding sometime in the last century) and felt the hot sun on our faces, we knew we had done something very right in coming to Valencia after all. Our goal that first day was to head to the city’s beaches, and we took our time in getting there. At some point, just before the beach—literally a block or two away—we suddenly found ourselves in the most dilapidated part of town. Where two blocks away we were walking between modern office buildings, suddenly it looked like a war zone: boarded up or torn down buildings and rubble everywhere. Startled, we gazed around us in bewilderment as we walked the last couple blocks to the beach. And then, almost as suddenly, we found ourselves among hordes of tourists walking the boardwalk, tanning on the beach, or crowding the patios of beachfront restaurants for saucy paella and jugs of sangria.

After spending awhile on such a patio, bemusedly sipping a beer and people watching (and chatting about golf– what else?), we decided to walk along the water for a bit before tacking back in search of transit home. When we arrived at our apartment again, we tucked in to the sausages, bread, and cheese we had purchased at a local Carrefour, and settled in to watch a movie (12 Monkeys— James was shocked that I had never seen it before, and being one of his favourite movies he was adamant that I experience it!) before bed.

Clear Grits

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset

The next day we stayed closer to home, opting to do some laundry and a few other things, before venturing back to Barcelona for our late dinner. We ate at Tatau l’Antiquari, a little restaurant that James had found on the internet, which was located down one of the ubiquitous alleyways near Barcelona’s Sants station. Despite deliberately arriving almost an hour later than we had the night before, the restaurant was still empty when we walked in, but the friendly staff soon made us feel welcome.

Because we were the only customers, our food came out rather quickly, and we had barely started sipping our wine (a local Catalonian vintage from north of Barcelona) when a parade of dishes made their way out of the kitchen. We started off with a plate of empanadas stuffed with banana and brie, served alongside a homemade strawberry jam (good for breakfast, if a bit confusing to start off a 9pm dinner meal), then we enjoyed a bowl of steamed mussels, simply presented but delicious nonetheless. Our first main dish was a succulent, buttery piece of hake served with spinach leaves and ripe cherry tomatoes, and topped with an insanely decadent squid ink aioli; needless to say we were sold on the place by that dish alone. Our other main, highly recommended by online reviews, was an inauspicious-looking pan of “grandma’s rice,” cooked with chicken thighs in a brown sauce. Initially skeptical of such a plain dish, after two or three bites, I suddenly understood why Spanish rice dishes are so widely admired. Flavourful and hearty without being heavy or overly salted, the gravy proved to be the perfect accompaniment to the perfectly chewy rice, which really was the star of the dish— even after the pan was finished, I endured James’ scorn in order to scoop up every last little remaining grain. Although I think we both could have eaten another whole pan of the stuff, after finishing the rice we forced ourselves to move on to dessert— James had a rich dulce de leche tart, while I had a dense and delicious apple cake.

We finished our wine and enjoyed the afterglow of a good meal, but not wanting to call it a night just yet, we thanked the staff and headed off in search of a drink. This we found in a busy bar, down yet another side street, that to our bemusement had been garishly decorated with fake cobwebs and tombstones for Halloween. Over a couple Belgian brews, James proceeded to educate me on the finer points of Canadian politics at the time of Confederation, and later on the Mike Harris “Common Sense Revolution” (I can imagine that any anglophones in that bar must have found it strange to see two people so animatedly discussing such topics), and then we paid our tab and caught the last train of the night back to Castelldefels.

The next morning, we awoke early (well, earlier than usual), packed our things, and headed off to the train station, Valencia-bound.

Mint and Citrus

Processed with VSCOcam with 4 preset

 

The flight into Barcelona gave us some incredible aerial views of Spain, and our final descent into the city, sweeping over the hills to the west of the city and out into the bay, before cutting back in to the airport, was a magnificent introduction to the city.

The change in scenery was dramatic and, feeling the heat of the sun on our faces, very welcome after the cool grey of London. Opting not to try and figure out the transit system (we were still pretty out of it from the night before), we grabbed a cab to our hotel in the suburb of Castelldefels. After checking in, we set off in search of some adaptors for our phones (having left my universal adaptor at the hotel in London), and grabbed a bite to eat and some groceries from a local mall.

We took an easy night in, planning for the next day, taking care of some business, and laying low to recuperate from our London adventures. The next morning, after a light breakfast at the hotel, we hopped on a train into Barcelona, and had a blast exploring what is a truly and magnificently beautiful city. Walking along broad avenues, we marvelled at the buildings and monuments, and the little side streets that seemed to branch off at every turn.

After walking awhile, we came upon Las Ramblas, the touristic hub of Barcelona, and discovered—down one of the picturesque side streets no less—a beautiful courtyard lined with bars and restaurants. After a short rest and a beer, we walked to the vibrant Mercado de la Boqueria, where we ate some cured meats with fresh bread before grabbing a couple spots at the famous little bar Pinotxo, where we enjoyed a delicious plate of baby squid with beans, and a hearty beef and potato stew, washed down with some cold Czech beer.

Feeling a pressing need to either get moving or lie down on the floor for a nap, we decided on the former and headed off at once in search of another famous location— this time, the iconic cathedral Sagrada Familia. While due to my lack of preparation and foresight we weren’t able to actually go inside the thing, the unfinished crown jewel of Catalan architecture was still impressive enough from across the street, so while James attended to some business I admired the building’s intricate façade.

When James had finished attending, we waited around in a Starbucks for almost an hour until it was time to go to dinner, at a place James had picked out earlier (getting used to the 9 or 10pm Spanish dinnertime has been a bit difficult). However when we got there, around 8:30, the place was barely even open, so after a quick conference we headed back to the hotel for the night, with the intention of returning the next evening at a more suitable time.

Duck & Waffle

Well, we only got two days into the trip before I forgot my power charger at the hotel in London. So this post will be trying to make up for lost time!

Day Two in London was surreal. I’m not sure if I ever truly got my bearings of the place, as we did so much walking and saw so many different things that day that the city became a straight line for us as we moved from point to point, objective to objective.

First on the list was James’ plan to make a little extra spending money for our trip. I won’t trouble myself (or bore you) by explaining the details, but if you’re interested you can read more about that kind of thing elsewhere on the blog. Everything went pretty smoothly at first, but we encountered a few technical hiccups that culminated in a frantic dash to what we thought was the nearest Paddy Power betting shop, but what turned out to be the company’s head offices at Euston Station. Luckily we managed to figure out a solution, which had us rooting for Liverpool FC to win that evening’s match against Tottenham Hotspurs.

That having been seen to, we set off in search of some sights. These were easy to come by, really, because Central London is a virtual carousel of architectural style. We walked through the grandeur of Fitzrovia, past the campus of University College London (London’s “Global” University!) and the British Museum, through the packed streets of the theatrical West End, and on and on until we stumbled out into the immensity of Trafalgar Square.

After getting our bearings again, we headed in the direction of Parliament and London’s iconic clock tower. We were unprepared, it turned out, for how ornate the façade was in real life, and so we spent a little while admiring everything before continuing our walk. From there we walked over the Thames—an impressive thing in its own right—and made a beeline for the famous Harrods department store, intent on a steak dinner in the upscale cafeteria. What a dinner it was! We chose our meat from the butcher’s counter, then sat down at the bar seats to watch the steaks cook; when the meat arrived, accompanied simply by some cherry tomatoes, béarnaise sauce, and some creamed spinach, we eagerly tucked in and spent the next half hour in foodie bliss.

Over dinner we decided on our evening plans: we searched out a clump of Liverpool-supporting pubs, and had a blast watching the match (which Liverpool won, 2-1) with actual fans. “Right chuffed” by our good fortune, we wandered around, popping into a pub or two as they caught our attention. Later, in search of a nighttime meal, we continued to amble, at one point ending up on the 40th floor of a building in downtown London that provided a spectacular view of the city at night. Before heading back to our hotel, we finally found some food in the form of a late-night full English breakfast, which was a delicious (if heavy) way to end our massive day of walking.

The next morning, feeling tired from our short rest and a little worse for wear, we checked out of the hotel, caught a series of trains to Stansted airport, and were soon in the air to sunny Spain!

Two Tall Pikes

img_7927

Travelling is my least favourite part of a trip. Maybe it’s the jet lag, maybe it’s the fact that it takes so long for my hearing to return to normal after being bewildered by the constant pressurizing and depressurizing, or perhaps it’s navigating a new and unfamiliar geography. Whatever it is, we knew that this trip would inevitably have a somewhat bumpy beginning, so keeping that in mind we decided to give ourselves a three day buffer (of sorts) in London, to allow some time for acclimatizing before heading to Spain.

Still, our trip from the airport to our hotel in Regent’s Park was just a blur. At some point, I recall waiting twenty minutes at a chain café for two americano’s (we joked about pretending to be the typical, boisterous American tourist insisting on just a “medium coffee”); I vaguely remember shuffled bleary-eyed and exhausted past the changing of the guard at Buckingham palace (the tops of our weary heads made a cameo in half a hundred tourists’ cellphone videos); I recollect rather artfully weaving and dodging through crowds of people at Piccadilly Circus, all of whom seemed much more confident in their walking skills than we were. Somehow, we finally made it to the hotel, where immediately— aggressively, even— we poured ourselves into our beds for a nap. That merciful reprieve, combined with a hot shower, gave us the courage to venture out again in search of dinner.

We walked a short distance through the lively borough of Camden, where we had dinner and a beer or two at the Colonel Fawcett, a well-rated, hip pub with surprisingly good food (if you must know, we split some crispy fried fish, James had a juicy burger and some chips, and I polished off a smoky chunk of ham with potatoes and cipollini onions in a light broth).

After meandering our way back to the hotel once again, (we may have stopped at a pub or two along the way…), we slid once again into the sweet embrace of sleep.

Somehow, we dragged ourselves out of bed this morning, and now, sitting in a Starbucks, wrestling with the spotty wifi, we’re currently planning out our day— tomorrow we fly out to Barcelona, so we think we’ll go see the sights around Parliament and Westminster Cathedral today, do some more exploring, and top things off with a steak lunch at Harrods of all places.

USFantasy (USF) Initial Thoughts

I’ve been pretty excited to see how Nevada upstart fantasy sports operator USFantasy (USF) will do after they launch. Their fantasy sports concept is smartly designed and simple for the casual sports fan to play. The USF fantasy sports game is built on a pari-mutuel system. Most bettors are familiar with pari-mutuel style wagering when they bet on horses at the racetrack. Basically, what USF does with the fantasy sports game is turn “horses” into “quarterbacks”. Instead of betting on thoroughbred horses, bettors make wagers on professional athletes.

The USF system is simple and ingenious because it doesn’t rely on a house to set fixed price odds. The pari-mutuel betting format removes much of the conflicts of interest and insider information plaguing the current fantasy sports betting model offered by industry giants such as DraftKings and Fan Duel. By using a pari-mutuel system, USF can quickly offer a market in any type of contest, from darts, to soccer, to golf. As long as USF can obtain consistent statistics that can be used to rank the outcome, their fantasy sports betting system can be greatly expanded.

There are certain downsides to using the USF pari-mutuel system for fantasy sports. For gamblers familiar with fixed price odds, the pari-mutel system can be frustrating. The odds for any particular wager will move up and down depending on the amount bet on each player. So the odds that are listed when a gambler makes his wagers might not be the odds that he gets when the wager is settled or when the market closes. But the more liquidity a pari-mutuel pool has, the more accurate and stable the odds will be. I think having a statewide or global pari-mutuel pool will make the odds a lot more stable than the pari-mutuel odds gamblers sometimes encounter at a local dog track or single casino.

Let me now describe in more detail how I suspect the USF fantasy sports game works and let’s use NFL as the example. Consider that each fantasy sports bettor has to choose three athletes to play the basic USF game. The bettor must choose a quarterback, a running back, and a receiver. There are three stats that will be used, a single stat for each position, and these stats will be used to determine the winner for each position (passing yards, rushing yards, and receiving yards). Each position makes up its own betting pool. There is a quarterback pool, a running back pool, and a receiver pool. The better chooses a quarterback, a running back, and a receiver. The game is played and yards are awarded as points for each player. The payoffs are then determined using a pari-mutuel method for each of the three pools. The bettor’s aggregate payoff is the sum of his winnings from each position pool.