When in Rome

The next day we boarded our train in the early afternoon and were headed off to our last stop Rome!

After an uneventful journey we finally arrived in Roma Termini.  Once off the train we had heard about a wonderful market inside the train station and after a little searching finally found it.

The metro underneath Termini station

During some previous research we had discovered Bonci pizza and decided to give it a try.  We each had a few slices and then headed to our next Airbnb.  Our Airbnb was located near a metro station so within an hour we were in and acquainted with the new unit.  Like the last, this one also had A/C as well as laundry which was great for us.  We decided to sit down for a few mins and watch the World Cup finals.  It was unfortunate for Croatia, but France did play better.  For the rest of the night we started to explore the area around our unit getting our first glimpse of the Tiber as well as a lovely market along the shoreline with various popup bars and music.  Finally we finished the night with a late visit to Eataly which we had missed in NYC and I thought it would be great to see and experience the food there.

We had decided that the following day we would try and see the Pantheon, Trivvi Fountain, and maybe get to the Colliseum as well.  We got up in the morning, showered, and headed out into the busyness that is Rome.  Our first stop was a spot known only as “the pyramid”.  It was built for Gaius Cestius around the year 12BC.  This is the kind of stuff you see everywhere in Rome, ancient stuff!

The Pyramid at night

After this we made our way into the the main part of the city and visited some Piazza’s that had amazing fountains.  Eventually we made it over to one of my favourite buildings in Rome, the Pantheon.  This is a Roman temple built around the year 120A.D. and is one of the best preserved buildings in all of Rome.

The Pantheon

The ceiling is one of the most striking features of the entire structure.  It has a poured concrete dome shaped roof with a centre hole for the sunlight to come inside.  The ceiling looks like it was built yesterday and is in an almost unbelievable condition.

The amazing ceiling

Another nice aspect is that the Pantheon is free to enter and had minimal queues when we went.  After a stop for an Aperol spritz we moved on to another section of the city.  We walked through some of the touristy areas and eventually came across the Spanish steps.  The name Spanish Steps comes from the fact that the Spanish embassy used to be located at the top of the steps.  There are still several embassies in this area including the French embassy.  We climbed up the steps and admired the view from the top.  It had great views of Rome where you can see St. Peter’s basilica as well as the Altar of the Fatherland which can be seen from almost anywhere in a Rome.

Villa Borghese

We also ventured into Villa Borghese, a massive park located in central Rome.  Like everywhere in Rome, this park had loads of sculptures and fountains in a large treed green space.  A nice place to hang out for a few mins!

Another fountain in Rome, these things are everywhere!

Continuing our sightseeing tour we also saw the Trevvi Fountain and came across the Alter of the fatherland which was much bigger than we expected!  The alter was built as a tomb for the first king of Italy in the early 1900’s.

For lunch we decided to make our first stop of our impromptu pizza crawl at Rosciolis Pizza!  What an amazing pizza place!!!  We walked into the bakery and were greeted with a large spread of pizza choices alongside sweet treats.

Rosciolis Pizza

Roman Pizza is prepared in long narrow sheets and is cut to order depending on the size that you want.  You pay per weight so the size is up to you.  We got a selection of types and began to chow down.

Both of us were stuffed once we finished and used the rest of the day to burn it off.  I should also mention that we may have gone back later in the day for some sweet treats and a little more pizza, we couldn’t resist!  One of our favourite quotes from the trip was in reference to a slice of decadent Rosciolis pizza, “It’s like eating butter, really good butter”.  The aspect that I really enjoyed about Rosciolis was that they tended to used garlic oil instead of the traditional tomato sauce, something is very much prefer.  The crust was soft on the inside and crunchy on the outside and the toppings were fresh and amazing.  The service was quick and efficient.

The next day we continued our pizza crawl by using the commuter rail to visit the area near the Vatican.  After a short walk we arrived at Bonci.  This joint also came highly recommend and after a positive experience at Rosciolis our expectations were high.  We grabbed a ticket and began to wait, and wait, and wait for our number to be called.

Bonci Pizza

Bonci Pizza

Eventually after about a 30min wait it was our turn and we made our selections, payed, and began to consume!  The pizza was also very good with fresh toppings and a nice crust.  One difference was that they reheat the pizza in the oven before they serve it to you.  We discussed the quality of the service at Bonci and decided that it was very lacking.  We waited almost an hour to get some pizza and it wasn’t even that busy.  The fact that they reheat the pizza I think delays the entire process drastically.  At Rosciolis the entire process took about 2 mins to order, pay, and receive your food.  At Bonci as I mentioned it took almost an hour to get pizza that was arguably not as good.  That being said we both agreed that we enjoyed Rosciolis more!  Later in the day we also visited the Vatican taking in the views of St. Peter’s basilica and St. Peters square.

The Vatican and St. Peter’s square

The following day was our scheduled lunch at Rosciolis.  I should mention that Rosciolis has a deli/restaurant, a bakery, and a cafe all within walking distance.  The Rosciolis deli was highly recommended and reservations were required to get in.  It is said to be one of the best restaurants in Rome.  We started of our meal with one appetizer of mortadella with shaved Parmesan on top and another of goose foie gras with fresh crispy bread.  Both were amazing and the waiter recommended a red wine to accompany.  Our main pasta courses were a carbonara with crispy pork cheek on top and the classic Roman dish of Cacio e Pepe.  Both were absolutely amazing with perfect al dente pasta.  We also ordered a meatball dish which we shared because we were both already full.  Finally they brought us a little dessert of two cookies with melted chocolate for dipping.  This was one of the best meals of the trip and we both thoroughly enjoyed every aspect.

Our pasta course.

The arrangement of meats at Rosciolis

We sat in a nearby park to recover for a few mins and then made our way over to the colosseum and Roman forum to view some of the ancient sights.

The Colosseum

A piece of the Roman forum

For our last day in Rome I had the opportunity to enjoy another bowl of cacio e Pepe and a nice glass of wine and we relaxed and got ready for our flight the next day.

Cacio e Pepe

Oh, and we also had one last gelato which actually turned out to be the best gelato of the entire trip.

Our great gelato

This concluded our trip and I hope you have enjoyed the entries.  Till next time…

So much Duomo!

Our trip from Milan to Florence took about 2 hours on the 300km/h high speed FresciaRossa line.  Always a fun time on high speed trains! Once in Florence we performed the now common task of orientating ourselves at the train station and then proceeding to walk to our next Airbnb.  After about a 20 min walk we arrived at our new digs which had the added benefit of A/C, a welcome discovery!  What happened next was the customary coin flip and I was once again stuck with the sofa bed while the other got the master suite.  Since it was World Cup we decided to go into Florence to find a pub to watch the game from.  As we walked into the downtown area for the first time we quickly noticed the amount of tourists in this city was astounding.  It was very common to hear people speaking English to one another as we walked through the streets.  We later found out from a waiter that the current tourist trend is Russians, Brazilians, and Americans alongside the usual British and Scandinavians.  As we toured around we got a brief glimpse of the Duomo as well as some of the other tall structures in the city.  As the time approached 7pm we found a spot on google maps and managed to find a seat in a crowded pub and settled in to watch England loose to Croatia in extra time.  The pub was full of British people which were not happy about the outcome but had a good time nonetheless.

The Arno River.

On day two we decided we would venture over the Arno river and into the south side of Florence.  Here we saw what remains of the old city walls and a large southern gate from the 1400’s.  Much of the wall had been razed during various attacks so only select sections remain.

The old south entrance to the city.

After a quick water break we ventured into what we thought was the Boboli gardens which was a disappointment until we realized we were in the wrong park.  After finding the correct Boboli gardens we admired many of the sculptures and hedged walkways that the garden has to offer.

One of the many statues in Boboli gardens.

Eventually we made the climb to the top and admired the wonderful views of Florence from the Fontana delle scimmie and the Vasca delle Nettuno (fountain of Neptune).

The fountain of Neptune.

We were also interested in visiting the Piazzale Michelangelo to witness some more panoramic views of Florence so we proceeded to walk down one hill and thought that walking up another would be too much work.

The trip downhill, luckily it was a one way street so you see the cars racing upward and move away instead of being hit.

It sounded like a perfect time for a break and a couple Aperol Spritzers!  Once refreshed we joined the crowds of tourists for the climb up to the lookout.  Hopefully the pictures do it some justice.

View from the top with the Duomo on the left in the distance.

Another shot.

As the sun went down we found a restaurant in the downtown area for some dinner.  We chose Osteria dei Pazzi and both enjoyed some appetizers as well as a monster Florention Steak cooked to the chefs preference of medium-rare.

Florentine Steak cooked to medium-rare

After a giant gelato that ended up costing us 8€ we wandered back to our home for the night.  On our way home we discovered a party in a park near our home where people of all ages were dancing and drinking late into the night.  A fun sight for us to see!

The local party scene.

The next day was our Duomo day!  I had bought the tickets while we were still in Milan and had reserved a time for us to make the ascent.  With both of us being a little scared of heights we were hesitant but up for the challenge.  We made our way into the city and had some pizza for lunch alongside a couple more Aperol Spritzers before making our way over to the Duomo for our reserved time.

The cathedral from the outside.

View of the Duomo from the Bell Tower.  The cupola where we would be is visible just above the red bricks of the duomo.

We passed through security with ease and started the 463 step climb up to the cupola.  As you perform the climb you arrive at a walkway constructed at the beginning of the dome that overlooks the cathedral floor below.  Here they have installed plexiglass barriers to prevent people from falling over as the stone railing probably doesn’t meet current safety requirements.  This was an especially challenging part as there is only one way up to the cupola and you have to wait on the ledge looking down for people to come down first.  Eventually our time came and we began to navigate the narrow passageways towards the top.

A couple facts about the Duomo:

– it spans 45m at its widest, starts 55m above the floor of the cathedral, and consists of 463 steps to get to the cupola at the top,

– because of the height above the floor that the dome starts it was not feasible to use scaffolding, Brunelleschi built the dome layer by layer using internal rubbing.

– the dome also contains two layers, an inner and outer layer.  This allowed for protection from the elements of the inner staircases and also so that the inner hallways would not been seen once completed.

– there no abutments along the bottom of the dome to keep it from spreading laterally, this is why Brunelleschi chose ribbing both vertically and horizontally.

– construction of the dome began in 1420 after a two year competition. It was eventually finished in 1436.

Inside the dome walls.

Looking out from inside the dome.

Climbing to the top! And yes it is that steep (like climbing a ladder) and not for the faint of heart.

Once at the top we took a few mins to soak in the views (and the height!) and made our way back down to the ground.

North facing view.

South facing view.

We also made use of the other aspects of our tickets and explored the baptistery and climbed up the bell tower next to the cathedral.  A great investment for only 18€.  We also walked to the fancy Ponte Vecchio which is a bridge crossing the Arno river that is home to many expensive jewelry shops.  In the evening we enjoyed a couple more Negroni before having a wonderful pasta dinner.

Ravioli stuffed with porchinni mushrooms and eggplant.

The Arno River.  You can slightly see Ponte Vecchio in the back right.  It’s a bridge but all the shops built on top make it look like a continuation of the city.

The Arno River.

Our last day in Florence was a bit of a relaxation day as both of us were feeling pretty tired from all the walking we had been doing.  We were averaging about 30,000 steps every day.  We got up a little later and I grabbed some focaccia and cherries at the local grocery for brunch.

A truck on a truck I saw while walking to the grocery store.

Later we walked into the downtown core and found a nice sandwich shop right next to the restaurant we had gone to the night before.  We were hoping to go to the sandwich place earlier but the open hours were strange and it had been closed the other times.  We both got our sandwiches (I got chicken while the other got some sort of pulled beef soaked in oil) and we sat in the nearby Piazza della Signoria to eat and people watch.  People watching in Florence is very interesting because of all the tourists from all over the world.  So many different cultures.

As many had mentioned to me before I left, the amount of statues and sculptures in Italy is insane!  Every corner you turn around contains another sculpture on the side of a few hundred year old building.  Crazy!

Another sculpture on the side of a church like building.

We walked back to our apartment stopping for one last gelato on the way and layed down for the night.  The next day was a travel day, we would catch the high speed train at S.M. Novella station bound for Rome Termini.


Milan, our Italian journey begins!

We decided to fly from London Stansted to Bergamo airport in Italy on the budget airline Ryanair.  Although inexpensive, you get almost nothing on these flights except a seat and seatbelt (which doesn’t cost extra!).  To avoid incurring any additional fees at the airport which has happened in the past, we checked in from our hotel and also decided to pay the extra 7£ fee per person for priority boarding and two cabin bags.  It should be noted that this fee jumps to 50£ at the airport if you do not select it ahead of time.  Once on the plane we sat there, and sat there, and sat there until finally the pilot came onto the overhead speakers.  In an Irish accent he said something along the lines of, “due to the English not being able to schedule anything properly, they haven’t finished the flight plan and we also have no ground crew, they probably went for lunch.”  He said it could be a while and would keep us posted.  We had been on the plane over an hour already.  About 15 mins later the pilot said they had approved the flight plan and were sending a ground crew which appeared shortly after holding sandwiches and coffees.  They had indeed gone for lunch!  So after an hour and a half we were finally on our way to Italy!  Our flight took us over France, Germany, Switzerland, and eventually over northern Italy.

Flying over Britain with Standsted airport visible on the left of the wingtip.

It was unfortunate, if we had been there just a few days later we would have seen Donald Trump and Airforce One touch down.

Some of the Swiss Alps from the air.

Lake Como

Once we touched down and cleared customs (which involved a boarder guard distracted on his phone while stamping passports) we found a bus to go to Milan and arrived at the central train station.

The bus into Milan.

From there we walked to our Airbnb and got settled in.  We were pretty tired at this point so we went to the local grocery store and bought and assortment of meats and cheeses and some focaccia and sat down to watch the World Cup in our Airbnb.

The wine prices at the corner store. (1€~$1.17 USD).

The next day we continued to explore Milan including the Sforzesco Castle and the 3rd biggest cathedral in the world the Duomo di Milano.  Unfortunately we didn’t make it into the Duomo but the craftsmanship outside was still amazing!

One of several city fountains.

The gardens in front of the castle during dusk.

The Duomo di Milano

A sculpture of Jesus in the manger on the main doors of the Duomo. My assumption is that baby Jesus is polished from the many hands that touch him.

Milan is more of an industrial city so the amount of foreign tourists that we noticed was less compared to London and New York.  We also had our first opportunity to try the popular Italian cocktail the Negroni.  When we ordered two Negornis the waiter asked, “Alchohol?” to which we replied yes.  To this day we are both convinced that it had almost 500mL of alchohol and nothing else, all for just 6€.

The Negroni!

Once we had finished we slowly made our way over to “Pescaria” for a delicious seafood sandwich in a turtle shaped toasted bun.

A local bakery that provided us with Focaccia and sweet treats each morning!

Gelato from “Il Massimo del Gelato” located just around the corner from our Airbnb. These flavours are coffee and mango!

Our last few days contained more signseeing as well as a ride on their tram network on a ATM series 1500 tram from the 1930’s which was a big hit!

Streetcar #1935 built sometime in the early 1930’s (number has no bearing on year built).

We also enjoyed several cocktails at a popular spot “Rita” in the Naviglio Grande canal region where the apperitivo of chips, carrots, and bread bites comes standard with every drink.

Naviglio Grande region

Lastly we dined at 100 Montaditos, a popular spot for the seasoned traveler.  Tomorrow we move onto the next area, Florence!

…then we take London???

Well maybe it’s not exactly how the Leonard Cohen song goes, but close enough!

After a long flight we finally made it to London’s Gatwick airport at 11 am local time (6 am EST).  We funneled of the plane and made our way to customs where an absolute zoo of people were already in line for the border force customs checkpoint.  It took us about an hour to get through and then we were off into the airport.  Unfortunately the main Gatwick Express train was out of commission so we used google maps to make use of the commuter rail instead.  It was a quick ride but by the time we arrived at London’s London Bridge Station it was already almost 2 in the afternoon.  Eventually we made it to our hotel and were able to throw our packs down for the next leg.  With only one of us having been to London before, the other was eager to see the sights and sounds of the big city!  We ventured over to a local pub for a beer and then made our way to another spot for dinner.  I enjoyed a lasagna while the other had some beef stew with greens and mash.  Both were enjoyed.


After, we made our way towards the newer financial district known as “The City” and saw many of the famous buildings in London.


The Shard and Tower Bridge

The Gherkin

That was all for day one, we walked back to our hotel and slept well that night!  Day two promised more sightseeing and good food!



When we woke, we realized that our hotel was right next to a ready mix concrete plant.  Who would have thought that there would be a ready-mix plant in the middle of the city?  Needless to say I thought it was pretty neat!

The Ready-mix plant

We made our way over to Buckingham palace for the changing of the guard ceremony and later walked through Hyde park.  After a quick stop at Pret a Mange for lunch we saw the British Parliament, Big Ben (completely covered in scaffolding) and made our way across the Thames and into the shard area of downtown.

Trafalger Square

Liverpool St. Station

Old vs. New

A view of “The City” from across the Thames, Millenium bridge in the foreground.

Here we found a sports bar and sat down to watch France beat Uruguay in the World Cup.  We enjoyed a few pints before leaving to make our dinner reservations at 6.  We enjoyed a nice steak dinner at the Hawksmoor Burrough location.  We started off with a cocktail and several oysters.  Among the regular oysters we also enjoyed oysters with bone marrow and breadcrumbs on that were finished under the broiler.  Unfortunately they neglected to tell us where the oysters where from, a fact that usually adds to the experience.  We also enjoyed some steaks, Caesar salad, and triple cooked chips that tasted like regular chips.  All in all a nice meal!  After we walked over to the Shard and were amazed by its height.  The shard is the tallest building in the UK and is 95% owned by the state of Quatar.  We pondered over the idea of using foreign investment to construct national landmarks many times over the next few days.  As the night came to a close we enjoyed the breeze off the Thames and the city lights all around us.  Tomorrow is another travel day, onto our main destination of Italy!


Answering Readers Questions on HISA cash deposits

Responding to my HISA Rates page, a reader recently asked me about three interest bearing investments:

Purpose ETF

The Purpose High Interest Savings ETF is an Exchange Traded Fund listed on the TSX which is composed of deposits held at various Canadian deposit taking banks, trust companies, and credit unions. According to their website, the fund currently holds deposits with the following institutions: National Bank of Canada, Manulife Bank of Canada, First West Credit Union, First Calgary Credit Union, Coast Capital SavingsProspera Credit UnionVancouver City Savings Credit Union, BlueShore Credit Union, Westminster Savings.

Any Canadian investor with a brokerage account able to trade on the TSX can invest in this ETF. Your rate of return will be linked to the interest received by the fund from these deposit taking institutions. Their rates will be similar (and sometimes higher) to the rates offered by the large(er) institutions offering High Interest Savings Account mutual funds. Investors can buy and sell the Purpose High Interest Savings ETF just like they would shares of stocks on the TSX, and I assume there is also a market maker working to ensure liquidity of this ETF.  I’m not sure about the advantages of using this ETF other than potentially receiving a modestly higher interest rate, but with today’s low interest rates, we’re talking about fractions of a percent.

For most individual investors, since they are usually under the insured limit ($100,000 for CDIC deposits) it doesn’t help to diversify their cash deposits. As long as your cash deposits are less than $100,000, my recommendation is to use a single HISA with the highest rate and switch only when a better rate becomes available.

The two USD money market funds

The CIBC and RBC US$ money market funds mentioned by a reader are US dollar Canadian money market mutual funds. Each of these funds invests in US dollar denominated money market investments such as commercial paper and various types of trusts and asset backed notes. These mutual funds should be considered low risk, but are not risk free. These mutual funds also are slightly higher risk than High Interest Savings Accounts because the creditworthiness of the securities in these mutual funds is slightly lower than the CDIC insured deposits found of HISAs. In the grand scheme of risk though, these two US dollar money market mutual funds are still low risk. If you are a Canadian based investor with a US dollar cash portion of your portfolio, these two mutual funds are probably a good place to park your cash, if you are willing to understand the risks, you will receive a higher rate of interest compared to straight insured cash deposits, and you’ll also receive a higher rate of interest compared to what you’ll get if you just leave the US dollars sitting in your account.

Lending Loop

Investing in P2P lending sites such as Lending Loop is probably on the higher risk side of the risk spectrum. As an investor, participating in a P2P site like Lending Loop means you will be making syndicated business loans. A small business might use Lending Loop to get a loan at a rate and terms that are better than what they could get from their bank, and your loan to them will make up a portion of the total amount they borrow. A common strategy for P2P lending is to take your investment and build a portfolio of loans to various borrowers over a range of credits and timeframes that suit your investment objectives. Since the market for P2P loans is still a lot less developed than other forms of lending in Canada, as an investor, you should understand that you’re taking more risk and accepting a potentially higher reward.

P2P lending is not a substitute for a cash deposit, but it can make up a portion of fixed income portfolio, with a risk profile closer to high yield bonds than to cash.

First we take Manhattan…

Our first stop on our multi leg journey brought us to beautiful New York City!  The trip got off to a little bit of a slow start with one of our flights being two hours delayed and mine being cancelled all together.  Luckily I was able to find shelter for the night with a good friend and the other had a night to himself in NYC.  He hit up a couple local bars including one of NYC’s oldest Irish bars McSorley’s Old Ale House which first opened in the mid 19th century.

A slow start to the trip as both of us were ready to get going.

The next morning I woke up at 4:30 in order to catch my early rebooked flight.  With minimal delay and short boarder lines in Newark I was in the city by 10 o’clock and met with my travelling partner at the hotel.  Finally!  After a quick nap we started our time in NYC.

Our first stop on our informal pizza crawl was Joe’s Pizza on Carmine, an establishment and staple for locals in the West Village since 1975.

The interior of Joe’s pizza

We both got a cheese slice and enjoyed how they finished it again in the oven before service.  Our second stop brought us to Prince St. Pizza just a few blocks away where the pizza although still tasty was a little more sloppy and lacked the crunch we had enjoyed from Joe’s.

With the temperatures before in the 30’s with ‘feels like’ in the low 40’s we felt it best to head back to the hotel for a short refresher and break from the heat.  After we had regained our strength we ventured across the Williamsburg bridge and into Brooklyn which for one of us was a first.  We had the goal of finding a sports bar to watch the World Cup and immediately realized that we were not the only ones.  Every bar we passed was packed with people with standing room at a premium.  Eventually we landed on a joint where we could watch England defeat Columbia from the street.

Once the game was over we managed to find a spot for a quick beer and then we were off to meet an old friend.  Once introductions had been made I was given a choice and decided that we should head towards Roberta’s pizza in Brooklyn.  All three of us thoroughly enjoyed the two pies we ordered.  The first titled “Freak on a Leash” contained ricotta, caciocavallo, speck, pea leaf, and a cilantro garnish and the second was the “Famous Original” which has the usual mozzarella, parmesan, chili oil, and oregano.  Both were delicious!

Our last day in NYC was again very warm but at least there was not the threat of any rain.  We started the day a little later by going to Katz’s deli for a pastrami sandwich and then off into the city again!

A Katz’s Sandwich

We made our way over to the Staten Island ferry and enjoyed the free shuttle to the island and back.

Our view while on the ferry

We enjoyed a quick beer at a patio near Wall st. and then moved on to JFK airport.  After making it through the madness that is JFK and the TSA, we found our gate and waited for our double decker 747 straight out of the 90’s.  It was comfortable flight but the length made us quite stiff.  Our time in NYC was done and we were off to the next adventure!

Toronto Short Term Rentals Airbnb New Rules

Residents and property owners are renting out rooms or entire units for short periods (less than 28 days) in growing numbers across the city, facilitated by the rise of online platforms such as AirBnB, VRBO, etc. Currently, short-term rentals are not permitted in Toronto.

On December 7, 2017, and January 31, 2018, City Council approved the regulation of short-term rentals in Toronto. The new rules, which require short-term rental companies to obtain a licence and short-term rental operators to register with the City and pay a Municipal Accommodation Tax of 4% were set to come into effect on June 1, 2018.

However, the City’s zoning bylaw amendments to permit short-term rentals as a use have been appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). They are therefore not in force. The OMB has scheduled a two-day hearing on August 30 and 31, 2018.  The City does not expect to receive a decision from the OMB for at least eight weeks after the hearing.

Therefore, the regulations for short-term rentals will not come into force on June 1, 2018.

If the City receives a positive decision at the OMB, the short-term rental regulations will come into effect. Individuals will be given a period of time to submit applications for a licence or registration and the 4% tax will be implemented. More information on what is required to collect and remit the tax will be available at that time.

If you would like to receive updates about the short-term rental registry and licensing program, contact mlsfeedback@toronto.ca to be added the mailing list.

For more information, see the decisions made by City Council to adopt a new zoning bylaw permitting short-term rentals and a registration and licensing program for short-term rentals.

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


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.


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).


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!


10,000 Montaditos


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.


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.