Category Archives: travel

Experiences near and abroad.

Sydney’s macarons, Adriano Zumbo, and a few other eating observations

I was enjoying the comments on the supermarket article so much that I decided not to post until my return for a little travel interstate. Now I bring you new tales of macarons (hey, there’s been a break of over six weeks since I last mentioned them!) and cakes, and some other food observations from Sydney.

There’s a pâtissier in Sydney who has been attracting some attention for his Pierre-Hermé-esque creations, including his versions of my beloved Parisian macarons (too often called ‘French macaroons’). Adriano Zumbo has a teency little shop in trendy Balmain. Along the righthand side of the narrow space is a glass cabinet of high-end patisserie. Indeed, you could almost imagine being transported to an exclusive atelier in Paris.

I’ll start with the macarons. There was a range of about ten flavours. I tried chocolate/earl grey, lavender/blueberry, and rice pudding. The macarons had been packed into clear plastic display boxes, making it difficult for the shop assistant to remove them. A number of cracked macarons were visible.

And so to the tasting. Problem 1: some crunch. Problem 2: some hollow shells. Problem 3: hard ganaches. Success 1: well judged lavender flavour (but fleeting blueberry). Success 2: tasty rice pudding filling (but chewiness isn’t necessarily a successful idea in a macaron filling). Zumbo’s macarons are a visual success (mostly), but on the day of this sample, the product was marred by textural problems in both the shells and fillings. The only Parisian resemblance here was the appearance.

As an aside, Sydney’s seagulls have a taste for luxury goods. Halfway through one macaron I was suddenly swooped upon and a moment later my hand was empty, the macaron gone! Bastard birds! I sat, bereft of macaron and wondering if this was one of those times when a man is allowed to burst into tears in public;)

I also bought one of Zumbo’s cakes. The ‘Ed Knocked Me Up’ sounded both amusing and interesting (walnut and coffee elements). It was quite large (and heavy) for an individual cake and cost about A$8. The caramel dome was beautiful and the modest garnish of a coffee bean and a flake of gold leaf added to the allure.

Numerous interesting elements were revealed with the caramel and the nut-encrusted chocolate girdle. Crunchiness, sponge, biscuit, buttercream, mousseline cream and even a lump of a coffee-walnut ‘compote’ (if I recall the description correctly). This was a very, very difficult piece of prettiness to eat without cutlery, especially with gateauivorous seagulls swooping on helpless tourists.

I was surprised to find that the dome was almost completely mousseline. That’s a hell of a lot of sweet, light and fluffy cream to get through. Too much. For someone who clearly has great technical skill, why did Zumbo produce something that could be characterised as Paris-meets-American-excess? Sure, the high-end patisseries in Paris produce things which can be insipid, or small-delicate-exorbitant, or man-that’s-rich, but rarely do their products give rise to an impression of gratuitous-fat-bomb! I know this sounds harsh, and that tastes may differ, but I felt this was a well made, somewhat busy piece of excess. If the amount of mousseline were halved, it’d be much closer to being an outstanding piece of patisserie. I hope his other creations don’t suffer from similar problems.

Moving along now… to Lindt’s concept store in Sydney’s Martin Place. This is the city’s other well known venue for macarons. I’ve read a lot of enthusiasm for the Lindt ‘Délices’ (as well as Zumbo’s), but some correspondents have been less complimentary. I chose three flavours: coconut, blackcurrant, and something I’ve forgotten (oops). Fail. Dry and crunchy in the mouth, with a number of hollow shells. The coconut was damp and dull. The blackcurrant flavour was clean and fruity, but marred by a very hard ganache.

My conclusion on the macaron front: from the Sydney tasting and my review of Melbourne’s macarons, I’ve seen no evidence that there are seriously well made macarons in Australia. THEY SHOULDN’T BE CRUNCHY, GOT IT?! I’ve read claims that David Menard at Noisette in Melbourne can do it, but I’ve not tasted proof, nor had other corroboration of the claim.

Other food in Sydney

With the taste of Portuguese grilled meats still lingering after my travels in May, I headed for Petersham to get a refill. Silva’s (Canterbury Road) is famous for its grilled chicken, but also known for some other dishes. I ordered a bowl of caldo verde (potato, kale and chorizo soup) and a prego (steak sandwich) with chips. The soup was A$9. As I waited, I worried a little that I might not have the appetite for an enormous bowl of soup *and* the main course. No need to worry. The soup turned out to be a very pricey serving. Whilst tasty, it was distinctly meagre for the price. The prego was better, but nothing stunning. So much for the taste refill. Pity.

I ventured out to Bondi Junction for the Thursday Organic Food and Farmers’ Market. A strange market, patently not living up to its name. There was very little fresh produce (three or four stalls), of which most was non-organic and non-farm. One hot-food vendor was refreshingly honest in declaring where there were organic or non-organic inputs. The rest of the small market was a hotchpotch of prepared food (some delicious), non-food stalls and a butcher’s van. Another farmers’ market contributing to the growing scepticism about the concept. A real pity.

As this was a very brief visit to Sydney, there wasn’t much more scope for eating/dining. Thankfully the remaining experiences were positive. Lüneburger German Bakery is a chain which seems to have appeared since I was last in Sydney, two years ago. The pretzels really are very good, the bread looked great, as did many of the pastry items. I also managed to dine at Chat Thai in Campbell Street without queuing first. I’d read glowing reviews of this small, modern Thai restaurant, but it was clear I’d need to dine at an odd hour if I wanted to have a calm meal. It’s not often I eat lunch at 4.30pm, but this was well worth it. (The only downside was the waitress who coughed repeatedly into her hands, all the while making drinks and handling crockery.) The menu is long and refreshingly interesting (see the website). Many of the diners are Thai. Prices are low. I’d return in a flash. Hell, I’d even queue!

And now I’m back in Melbourne after a fragrant detour to Canberra. More about that soon…

The macarons of Paris — 2008 review

Ladies and gentlemen, meringue aliens and hypoglycaemics, here is the second of two macaron review articles. It’s time we visited the home of the macaron de Paris, alas frequently called ‘French macaroons’. The macarons de Paris de Paris are plentiful and pricey, and not always superdooper (but mostly miles better than those currently found in Melbourne).

If all goes to plan, this will be my last article about macarons for a while. I can hear some of you sigh with relief! And there are others in Melbourne who are honing their skills as we speak…

To the review!

I ventured forth with Harry, my Parisian correspondent. We had a list of seven establishments to visit in one day.

First stop, Fauchon on Rue Saint-Antoine, near the Bastille. Shock! Fauchon had morphed into Lenôtre. A notch or two more stylish. The array of cakes was as tempting as a Brazilian gigolo on a dancefloor, but we maintained our discipline and only dribbled on the macaron cabinet.

Discipline was also needed in the number of macarons to be purchased per shop. With seven venues plotted on our macaron-crawl map, the danger of billiousness was considerable.

Three. So restrained.

lenotre_violette_a.jpg lenotre_coquelicot_a.jpg

Coquelicot – poppy, stunning colour but little discernible flavour, sweet
Chocolat à la violette – pleasant chocolate with a herbal note from the violet
Caramel fleur de sel – salted caramel, heavy and rich

They were quite dense. EUR 72/kg or 1.30 each. Large macarons: 3.50, crinkly surface.

Stop number two. Gerard Mulot’s newish shop near the Place des Vosges.


Mûre – blackberry with tea, pleasant, hollow shell
Passion – passionfruit, delightfully fruity
Pêche-abricot – peach-apricot, unexciting, crunchy
Chocolat – light, rich chocolate ganache, unexciting

EUR 68/kg or 0.85 each. Large macarons: 3.15, rough surface.

Next stop, Pain de Sucre, one of Paris’s most impressive small patisserie-boulangeries (I wrote about them last year). We resisted the wild strawberry tarts, the lime curd, the bread, the marshmallows…


In a break from tradition, Harry was permitted to choose a special, elongated macaron. The rather green, onomatopoeically named Krac-Krac (EUR 4.50) was about 15cm long, contained a green tea butter cream, a long sliver of white chocolate, and… pop-rocks. Lots of fun, but no flavour was particular assertive. Rather expensive.

Cassis – blackcurrant, discreet
Griotte-pistache – cherry shells with pistachio filling, interesting and complex
Menthe-chocolat – spearmint with a chocolate wafer, pleasant, delicate, but not exciting
Angélique-chèvre – angelica shell with goat’s cheese cream, unusual in that it’s a savoury macaron. An interesting experience, but probably not one I’d repeat.

In stark contrast to last year’s visit, this round of Pain de Sucre’s macarons were coarse and irregularly shaped. Disappointing. EUR 68/kg or 1.30 each.

At this point, just three stops into our research, neither of us was feeling particularly enthusiastic. Our tummies were filling with almond meringue and fatty fillings. We hadn’t yet exclaimed in joy about anything. Hmmm.


Citron – rather mild lemon
Bubblegum – oh my sweet childhood! Mind blowing, but a bit scary
Orange-rose – mild, pleasant
Framboise-amande – attractive taste


We weren’t impressed with the texture of these macarons. I suspected they weren’t fresh, as the shells were too soft. They also had dull surfaces and the fillings seemed too damp (perhaps contributing to the un-fresh impression).

EUR 1.60 each. Large macarons: 4.00.

Sadaharu AOKI is our fifth stop.

Pêche-canelle – peach-cinnamon, delighfully fruity, but a little delicate
Sésame – interesting sesame creation, nice sweet-savoury aspect
Violette – great appearance, but fleeting violet flavour
Umé prûne salé – salted plum, delicious (with violent disagreement from Harry)


Aoki’s macarons were the smallest of all that we bought, but only by a few millimetres. They were also the cheapest, at EUR 0.85, despite being the most creative. These were the first macarons of the day to use a rich buttercream in all flavours.

At this point we surrendered from exhaustion and blood sugar crises. The last two stops would have to wait til the morrow.

Ladurée is lucky number six. We arrived a little late. At 1pm the queue consisted of about fifteen people outside the shop and considerably more inside. It was raining. As luck would have it, a member of staff enticed us to another entrance, leading into the salon de thé, where we could buy some macarons away from the surging crowd in the shop.


Muguet – lily-of-the-valley, a new flavour for me, strongly floral, but not as assertive as rose (Harry hated it)
Rosanis – a subtle combination of rose and anise, very pleasant but could have been stronger
Citron – outstanding lemon (it was a special type, but I didn’t catch its full name in either French or English)

EUR 1.50 each.

Pierre Hermé comes last. No insult intended.

The rain continued. The queue outside stretched a short distance, perhaps ten people. On many Saturdays the queue is much much much longer. Only the hardiest devotees could withstand the rain. These devotees were about 80% tourists, most of them American. After quite some time huddling under our umbrella, we could at last cross the threshold. The boutique seemed brighter than I remember it. Most interestingly, the staff were markedly more friendly than on my last visits, two and three years ago. A sign of the dominance of the tourist trade and the need to present a warm face? My first visit to Pierre Hermé was marked by stiff hauteur. What a change.


Arabesque — apricot, peach and pistachio (if I remember rightly…)
Caramel salé — superbly delicious, a salted caramel butter cream
Jasmin — delicate, almost too faint

EUR 1.85 each.

We also bought an Ispahan, a tarte au citron and a tarte au café. Heaven. Pics can be found in my birthday deliciousness post.

There ends the crawl through the macaronic universe of Paris. To round up, prices ranged from EUR 0.80 to 1.85 (A$1.50-3.40) per piece — close to EUR 100 per kilo at the top end. For comparison, the typical Parisian bakery price is approximately EUR 40/kg (probably less than EUR 1.00 per piece), while an upmarket foodhall like the Grande Epicerie at Bon Marché charges EUR 60/kg.

There was absolutely no question in our minds about who does macarons worth travelling for. Ladurée and Pierre Hermé stand heads above everyone except, probably, Aoki. The three have in common that they often use rich (but not heavy) buttercreams, appear to have thought more about the success of flavours, showed product quality and consistency across their ranges and, most importantly, were the only ones which we felt we wanted to return to. The amount of filling varies from place to place, but Hermé and sometimes Ladurée clearly prefer more filling. I’ve even read a blogger criticise Hermé for having too much filling (I forget who, alas), but I must disagree. I definitely favour fat macs.

The crucial lesson learnt. You can joyfully make yourself ill on good ones, but

(wo)man cannot live by unremarkable macarons


Travel 2008 – returning to Portugal, Elvas


“In Portugal, every website is broken,” says the concierge as we try for the third time, in vain, to book a bus ticket online. I suggest that he is exaggerating slightly. Three or four years ago I might have agreed, but nowadays the situation is much, much better. Sure, numerous major tourist towns have websites that were written by someone’s least technically minded assistant, many hotels fail to provide so much as a map to help their guests, and crucial sources of information collapse after about three clicks. Only restaurants and the railway company, CP, seem to provide good, solid websites. (It is my turn to exaggerate slightly.)

Despite the online (and other) adversities of being a tourist in Portugal (of which more later), it is perhaps my favourite country in Europe. Portugal possesses a combination of antiquated charm and a decent dose of decay alongside a vibrant, open approach to life and the world. (Just don’t get entangled in its bureaucracy.) And the Portuguese know how to cook meat and seafood. I think Portugal has left more positive memories of simple meat dishes than anywhere else on my various travels.

Even more prominent in my mind are the sweets, however. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a food culture in Europe with a sweeter tooth. Tarts, cakes and almond-and-egg confections abound. I just wish there were more chocolate!

My travels take me to inland Portugal, the Alentejo, stretching from approximately the same latitude as Lisbon southwards until it almost reaches the southern coast, the Algarve (where frighteningly white northern Europeans gather like albino seals every summer).

I arrive in Lisbon on my flying bus (the tightest squeeze I’ve had in a while) from Sevilla. Landed and released from my seat, I see my backpack arrive on the conveyor belt in just 15 minutes, about four times faster than on previous visits. A miracle! Lisbon Portela Airport is not many people’s favourite place. I venture into the loos with great reluctance, for this is where the airport experience can be least pleasant. Men’s toilets in Portugal aren’t for the faint hearted. To my surprise, it is a more pleasant greeting to Portugal than usual. Perhaps things have changed since last time.

I collect a map from the tourist office. I’m on my way to Lisbon’s main bus terminal, Sete Rios (no website). The friendly lady tells me to take a local bus from just south of the airport, a mere ten minutes’ walk away. With more time to spare and less threatening skies, I might have followed her advice, but I’m not in the mood for navigating airport roads to a large roundabout and trying to find a bus stop for a bus which might not run often enough to make my life simple. I’ve researched my own route in advance (little thanks to Lisbon’s dodgy new journey planner) and buy myself a rechargeable ticket at the post office, catch a city-bound bus, change to the Metropolitana (underground) and make my way to Sete Rios.


For reasons unknown to anyone but transport planners, it pays to know your way to Sete Rios before you attempt the journey. The Metro station is called Jardim Zoológico (‘zoo’). Sort of above it is the elevated CP station Sete Rios. Next to it is the bus terminal, also known as Sete Rios. On the underground platform there’s a sign pointing towards the bus terminal. I think it says Terminal Rodoviário. I don’t think there’s anything saying Sete Rios. When I surface into the concrete space between the raised CP station and the sunken Metro station there are no more signs. Walking straight ahead, I’m suddenly in one of those cold, grey, empty spaces where only people up to no good lurk. So strange. An elderly lady comes down a flight of stairs and I venture a few words of Portuguese, unpractised for three years. She points me up a (different) flight of stairs, unmarked.

I come to a pathway leading across a small road, past a few bushes and lo! into a large building. There’s an enormous bustle of people, from school students to crones, farmers to strange twitchy people. I buy a ticket for my bus, departing an hour later, and settle in to wait, watch, and avoid sitting next to the more inebriated travellers. Large, shiny coaches depart in waves every half hour, leaving the long concrete concourse briefly barren.

I’m on my way to Elvas, a small fortified town close to the Spanish border. It’s famous primarily for its aqueduct and its historical importance as a fort town. The trip takes about three hours. Elvas lies on the edge of marble country. From the highway I can see piles of white stone on hilltops.


We pull into the small bus station and I peer at my little map. There is, of course, no signposting anywhere pointing towards the old town. The bus station is to the south of the fortified walls, thoroughly concealed behind houses and some large commercial buildings. It’s a steep but mercifully short climb to the closest town gate. I walk along the battlements to my rather luxurious hotel. There weren’t many to choose from and, faced with the option of an overpriced ‘dingy’ (Lonely Planet) pension and a not-too-expensive fancypants hotel, it seemed a no-brainer for two nights. The Hotel São João de Deus isn’t bad at all. High ceilings, comfy bed, nice bathroom, complimentary breakfast in your room, bougainvillea covering the walls outside. Nice. Just a pity the aircon blows hot air even when set to ‘cool’. It’s Portugal. And the very slight whiff of sewer from the bathroom is an old Portuguese friend. (A common problem at seemingly any point on the accommodation spectrum.)


The original town of Elvas is small, barely a kilometre across, enclosed by star-shaped fortifications (a ‘star fort’). The streets are narrow and frequently steep. It’s very sleepy on the weekend. Diminutive, leather-skinned elderly men in bars are complemented by a trickle of Spanish tourists passing through and the occasional couple of earnest Germans with their Nordic walking sticks. In summer it would see more traffic, I’m sure, as it lies on one of the main connections between Spain and Portugal and is listed in most guidebooks. (Elvas used to have a few daily train connections to Badajoz, across the border, making it fun for intrepid train travellers. The train service ceased a few years back. There are, apparently, occasional local buses that ply this route, but I saw no evidence of this and the Spanish bus company didn’t reply to an email. The Lusitânia night train Lisbon-Madrid-Lisbon ran via Elvas until early this year, when a landslide damaged the line. The train is now routed via Vilar Formoso. It is possible the damaged line won’t be repaired.)


Elvas is a fairly pretty place. There are a few churches and small museums. The views of the countryside are gorgeous on a clear sunny day. To the north and south are smaller hill forts, both military installations, I believe. And the aqueduct is humungous. I’d never thought of aqueducts as modern structures, but this one was only completed in the seventeenth century. A baby in the history of aqueducts.


Staying in a very small town from Saturday evening to Monday morning means there won’t be a lot of shopping to be done. Nor will some sights be accessible. That’s life. Elvas is worth a stay of about eighteen hours to get a feel for the place, or about four hours if you just want to see the main sites, have a refreshment and wander along the walls a bit.


I dine in the hotel restaurant, a respectable option in this town. When I arrived at the hotel, the bar was heaving with a wedding party. Unsure whether Saturday evening might be a big night out, I go to the restaurant just a little early for Portugal – about 8.00pm. The restaurant is empty (and would remain so for the entire evening). A waiter speaks a little English, while the younger waitress speaks none. Luckily, I’ve been eating in Portuguese for many years.


The couvert – the numerous little nibbles that appear unbidden (but not free) on your table at the beginning of every restaurant meal here – look great. Where many restaurants serve up a few containers of tuna paté and perhaps a small round of unexciting cheese, the hotel restaurant delivers marinated carrots and mushrooms, olives, roasted capsicum, an oozing aged ewe’s milk cheese (queijo ovelha curado, see also here) and some quite good bread. I could eat my fill on this and not worry about the roasted baby lamb (cordeiro de leite assado no forno) I’ve ordered.


Edible items may be larger than they appear

The lamb arrives on a trolley. The waiter carefully removes all the meat from the rather small (ie, young) leg on his platter. He piles the meat in the centre of a plate and places it before me. Here am I, already quite satisfied from the couvert items, and I’ve got a week’s worth of succulent, fragrant, wonderful protein to get through. Sacrifices! This was accompanied by a glass of local red, Figueira de Cima 2004. It was stunning, though not the perfect match to the delicate lamb.

I’d love to skip the fact that I also, foolishly, had dessert. Luckily it was a pretty stingy slice of a slightly singed nut cake, submerged (much like a South Australian pie floater) in a sea of ovos moles, an excruciatingly sweet egg and sugar substance much favoured in Portuguese pastries.

The next day is spent climbing battlements, photographing churches and hilly streetscapes, and consuming numerous espressos. I love Portuguese coffee. It isn’t as dark as the coffee of southern Italy, but is rich and flavoursome without much bitterness. And it’s cheap, costing as little as EUR 0.50 and rarely more than EUR 1.30 in touristy areas anywhere. (That’s A$0.90-2.40.) I order a café pingado, an espresso with a little milk.

Rain clouds gather mid-afternoon. I curtail a walk in the municipal park, southwest of the town walls and divert briefly to a Lidl supermarket (little different from Aldi). It’s one of the few shops open and it satisfies my desire for chocolate. I haven’t had any chocolate (except the liquid variety) for ten days. I’m surprised I haven’t been whisked away in an ambulance.

The skies open just as I return to the hotel. Good timing. It rains for much of the late afternoon and into the evening, so I spend my time packing while watching Portuguese TV. The news broadcasts are long and stupendously boring. If a soccer player stubs his toe, it’s likely to be covered in minute detail for the first thirty minutes (actually, on this particular evening, it’s the retirement of Rui Costa). It’s also political party conference season, so another half hour is spent on the speeches of the conference of the Partido Social Democrato. The remaining half-hour (yes, 90 minutes in total) covers any remaining sports news, the occasional cow with three udders and, if you’re very lucky, some brief happenings from somewhere in Europe.

As my thoughts turn to dinner, I realise I’m still digesting last night’s meal. The thought of another large repast leaves me feeling queasy. Some savoury snacks and a righteous apple become the preferred nourishment. Atonement.

Travel 2008 — Sevilla (Spain)

[Lots of photos here, so I’ve compressed them more than usual, with a loss of quality.]

A real city at last. Sevilla throbs with life. As the days have passed, I’ve felt the city-dweller in me yearning for a little more buzz than Córdoba or Granada could offer. The bus pulls in to the estación de autobuses Prado de San Sebastián. It’s a more modest building than expected and showing its age. I wander, somewhat directionless, out onto the street. The bus station is hidden behind a corner of a major intersection. I’d like to say it’s the southeast corner, but that Spanish habit of rotating maps makes it hard to be sure. The city is lush with enormous, blooming jacarandas. Beautiful violet blossom seems to light up the streetscape.

On the opposite side of the intersection is an enclosed garden. This runs in a narrow strip beside the walls of Sevilla’s Moorish/Mudéjar attraction, the Alcázar. Behind this wall hides a garden of considerably greater beauty. It’s warm, perhaps 30C. My garden is lovely but humid, and my backpack presses against an increasingly damp t-shirt. I emerge at the end of the garden into a small square and see the first evidence that Sevilla is indeed home to oranges.


Seville oranges are large, heavy and fragrant. Rarely seen in Australia, they are the orange typically used for making marmelade. Australian marmelade makers know where to find them…

I plunge into the narrow lanes of this city, navigating my way towards my hotel. Behind an old brick façade there’s a flamenco, um, theatre(?) and the Hotel Alcántara, a throughly modern building. The lobby is heaving with elderly Americans. My room is on the top floor, looking down on an unremarkable inner courtyard and situated much too far from the free WiFi signal. The hotel is clean and comfortable, and the staff are friendly and somewhat bilingual. As with most hotels in Sevilla, it’s booked out months in advance. I sit in the lobby, where the WiFi is strongest, and witness bedraggled tourists asking in vain for a room.

It’s mid-afternoon and it’ll be some time before I can meet my local friend. I wander the streets close to the hotel, remembering quickly that I’d better not be reincarnated as a pigeon, because my geomagnetic sensitivity sucks. Curving streets. Lost. Bloody Spanish maps.

The streets are truly lined with orange trees and the gutters and parks are littered with burst, fermenting fruit. A homeless man watches as I forage amongst the fallen oranges for an intact one. He probably thinks I’m a stupid tourist who’ll try to eat it.


I rest for a coffee in a dark bar on a wide avenue beside the university. In a display case against the wall are a range of lunch dishes. Lobster crêpes, a chicken stew of some sort, some pasta. The bar is quite full, primarily with groups of businessmen. One man, sartorially perfect and complete with waxed moustache, receives a small plate entirely covered by a single, enormous slice of grilled pork sirloin. ‘Piggy’, I think to myself. He cuts this solomillo into many bitesize pieces and turns to offer the plate to his companions. I retract my ‘piggy’.


The coffee isn’t bad. I’ve learnt to order an americano con leche in Spain. It’s an espresso shot, lengthened with hot water, and with a little milk added. The milk is invariably UHT. I hate that. Previous visits to Spain have left me very unimpressed by the coffee. At least in Andalucía, it seems better this time. I pay and leave. The transaction is brusque. Coffee life isn’t warm here.

At 7pm, a little before twilight, I meet Javier, my local friend, a real hispalense or sevillano. We explore the park site of the 1929 Exposición Iberoamericana (the Plaza de España is pictured below) and then go into the centre of the city to wander around the streets near the cathedral (the largest Gothic church in the world) and the Alcázar before finding dinner somewhere.


Javier chooses a popular tapas bar called Pepe Hillo. We’re quite early, so most of the high benches and stools are free. He orders for us. Patatas bravas (fried potato with tomato sauce), solomillo al whisky (slices of pork with a tart whisky sauce), salmorejo (Córdoba-style gazpacho), and pechuga de pollo con ciruela (chicken fillet with a plum sauce). Amusingly, almost every dish is accompanied by chips. Simple. Delicious. Each dish costs no more than EUR 2.50.

We wander further, until I eventually decide dessert and coffee are needed. A pastelería on the Avenida de la Constitución — Horno de San Buenaventura — opposite the cathedral, has a lot to offer. The cakes are creamy, too much so. A millefeuille with pinenuts looks more promising. I notice a granizada machine and my coffee craving is replaced by lemony-ice lust. Granizada (called granizado in much of the rest of Spain) is a coarse type of granita, with large ice crystals and liquid consistency. Delicious. I’d like a direct connection to the granizada machine!

svq_mille.jpg svq_graniz.jpg

Later, we sit and watch a flamenco dancer in an old coal merchants’ warehouse. La Carbonería is jam-packed with tourists, but isn’t one of the tacky flamenco traps about which the guidebooks warn tourists. We drink tinto de verano, red wine diluted with lemon softdrink served with ice, a popular summer drink which is refreshing and light.

The next morning I decide to try my churros luck one more time in Spain. (I forgot to mention an awful, greasy, foul experience in my report on Córdoba.) A few streets from the hotel is a small churrería. You buy your churros (or other healthy fare like potato crisps in huge bags, or fried almonds) and can sit at the tables of the adjacent cafés. The guy serving is surprisingly friendly for Spain! He hands me a paper bundle and a polystyrene cup of hot chocolate. I unfold my bundle, finding this a little too reminiscent of fish and chips, and lo! there are lovely little horseshoes of churros, fresh and crisp. The chocolate is runny, but the taste of UHT milk is only faintly discernible.


As I sit dipping my churros in the slightly too thin chocolate, I watch an elderly lady and her son receive a glass of hot milk each, then add a sachet of instant coffee. What?! Instant coffee? Javier tells me later that it’s a common way of serving decaffeinated coffee – decaf Nescafé for breakfast.

I discover that the queues to enter the cathedral and the Alcázar are depressingly long. I go exploring elsewhere instead. On the southern(?) bank of the Guadalquivir river is the Triana district, traditional home to the city’s gypsies. Here I find a fresh produce market, teeming with locals and with a wide range of vendors. One fruit and vegetable stall has a stunning diversity of produce, including numerous mushrooms and fresh herbs. Sometimes, just sometimes, there are reminders that Melburnians’ pride about the various markets in Melbourne is not always justified.


In the afternoon I do indeed manage to enter the Alcázar without queuing for more than a few minutes. The site map is impenetrable and signage in the rooms and buildings is minimal. The Spanish don’t just rotate maps willynilly – they also have little skill at visual communication (something I forgot to mention about the largely unsignposted Alhambra in Granada).

The Alcázar is my third Moorish site of this trip and the risk of Moor-fatigue is high. It is a complex of buildings which developed from an original palace. At first I feel a wave of ho-hum wash over me as familiar tile and stucco motifs return. Thankfully, however, the complexity of the buildings and the beauty of the gardens stir me from my sightseeing indifference. A stunning exhibition of Islamic calligraphy also has me in awe – and simultaneously frustrated that photography is forbidden. The book accompanying the exhibition is attractive, but its photos somehow lose the three dimensional glory of the royal writs, seals, books and scrolls.


The cathedral is a let-down. My EUR7.50 entry fee fails to give me access to the primary attraction – the Giralda tower, originally a minaret – due to some event being held in it, and I find many of the cathedral’s columns swathed in scaffolding. Grrr.


This evening, Javier shows me a square (Plaza del Salvador) where Sevilla’s moneyed crowd gathers to drink on many a summer evening. Drinkers squeeze in and out of bars to get their beer. The atmosphere is warm and festive.


We also go searching for almonds. Not any little nuts, but the famed Marcona almonds, de rigeur with famous pastry chefs for some time. Allegedly from Spain, purportedly the almond non plus ultra. That’s nice. Pity that your average Spaniard hasn’t a clue what they are. Asking around in a few semillerías (a kind of edible seed and nut shop) draws all but one blank. The last shop has a bag of mixed fried nuts which included some Marconas. So while the chefs might rave about these, it seems they aren’t high on the common cook’s radar. A trip to the upmarket department store El Corte Inglés yields a bag of raw, blanched Marconas and Duncan is happy (notwithstanding a kilo price of EUR 20 – about A$35). These almonds are sort of broad and stubby. They are noticeably sweeter than the almonds we usually see.

We eat late, about 10pm, in a pokey little restaurant on the northern(?) outskirts of the city centre. The Antigua Abacería de San Lorenzo serves as a jack-of-all-trades place, selling bread and charcuterie to shoppers and simultaneously feeding hordes of hungry locals, squashed into small alcoves. We sit in a dark, raised nook, slightly behind the ice-cream chest. The two staff are friendly but harried, rushing to and fro and sometimes overlooking the two hungry fellas. The menu is interesting and more innovative than the typical places in Sevilla. Prices are higher than these places, but still markedly cheaper than a number of tapas bars I can think of in Melbourne for the same or superior quality. Is further comment necessary?

We order a fig and fresh cheese salad, sprinkled with cinnamon. Four (relatively) thick slices of jamón ibérico de bellota (from acorn-fed piggies) rest on some soft bread. The jamón almost melts on the tongue. Its creamy fat smears in the mouth in a way I’ve never experienced before. It’s an unusual sensation, not completely pleasant, but perhaps a signature of some of the finest jamón to be had.


The olives are home-cured and excellent. A plate of huevos revueltos con chorizo looks frighteningly like a digestive mistake, but tastes fantastic. Scrambled egg with chorizo may well become my next comfort food!

I spend the following day shopping and exploring. Getting lost. Finding myself. Etc. I seek lunch at the pastelería of the first evening. The menu of bocadillos is a curious mix of boringness. I’m beginning to crave vegetables. Not much hope here. In awful Spanish, I try to ask for a sandwich with jamón serrano (more run of the mill than ibérico, and markedly cheaper), tomato and cheese. Oh my, how difficult. It’s as if I’ve asked for the sun and the earth. They have serrano. I can see it hanging there. They have cheese. They have tomatoes. It’s not on the menu. The waitress and the ham-man go into conference. Eventually I have a lovely bocadillo, as requested, replete with a garnish of potato crisps (and I thought it was only the British that need a bag of crisps with their lunch!).


Spanish cakes are rather sweet. I haven’t succeeded in getting my head around the principles of cake composition. There can be lots of cream. Lots of sweet, fatty or fruity mousse. Lots of lard-based pastry and biscuits. Lots of preserved citron, grated and used as a filling. I don’t see much evidence of a balancing of flavours or textures. There seems to be no drive to mix crunch with squidge or sweet with sour. Despite rich displays of cakes, I find myself unenthusiastic about an afternoon sweet.

Dinner is at a popular tapas bar called Coloniales (I think there are two branches in the city). It’s crammed with people, mostly youngish locals. We find a 30cm space at the bar and eventually procure a menu. Salmorejo spread on bread, topped with jamón. Heaven. Gimme more. Spinach and cheese croquettes. A vegetable!! Crumbed, fried capsicum with salmorejo. Goat’s cheese and dried fig on toast.


I’ve had three great dinners, each showing a different aspect of this style of food. The first was simple and everyday, the second somewhat creative and of high quality, the third more conventional but perfectly produced. The cheapest tapa was EUR 1.30, the most expensive ración we ate was EUR 6.00 (approx A$10). You can certainly go higher, especially for fish or in upmarket or more innovative places.

The next morning I leave Sevilla for Portugal. The airport bus is slightly mysterious. The website timetable is misleading. Hotel staff disagree about where the bus-stop is. I learned long ago not to trust every local’s instructions when it comes to such things. You either check these things yourself, or allow time for the instructions to be wrong. I find the bus-stop, close to the third location suggested to me at the hotel.

The bus takes a long, circuitous route to the airport, then dumping passengers in a carpark some distance from the terminal. The airport is small (11 gates) and check-in is slow, as so often in southern Europe. I board a tiny Portugalia jet bound for Lisbon. They serve a cheese and ham roll which is smaller than a tennis ball.

Travel tips

Eating tapas: Eating at bars can be daunting here, as regulars and others throng in the narrow passages between walls and bar, perching in window alcoves, sliding off the paucity of bar stools or snaffling one of the few tables inside or out. The locals know how to order. The tourists often don’t. Confronted with rapid-fire ordering, frequently in a local accent that bears tenuous similarity to anything you might have heard on telly or learnt in school, it’s easy to wish for a 7-Eleven and an easy life. But, thankfully, there aren’t any 7-Elevens, so it’s do or die. Find a free space at the bar if you can, or accept that you’ll nurse your tapa in your hand amidst the throng. Pray for a menu. Don’t look scared. Take a deep breath. Call out an order for a drink so the waiter registers your existence. Pray for a menu. On lucky days, you might be surprised to find the menu in a seemingly locals-only place is in English too. The Spanish so rarely speak much English, but the number of multilingual menus is helpful. Order a few things. You’ll probably need to say what size (tapa, medio-ración, ración) but how much it will end up being is unpredictable. Some tapas are quite filling, others modest. There’s nothing stopping you from ordering more later.

Travel 2008 — Granada (Spain)


Spain loves its fast trains. We had wizzed from Madrid to Córdoba in 1h45m in an AVE fast train. A distance of approximately 300km. After staying in Córdoba, we travel on to Granada. The carriages are the same oddly stubby ones as for the AVE (perhaps half the length of a carriage you or I might know), just an earlier generation, but this train is called an Altaria. It ain’t so fast. Same but different. It takes almost 2h15m to travel about 130km.

Granada’s RENFE station is just under 2km to the northwest of the centre. We walk up to Avenida de la Constitución to catch a bus. The bus stops are poorly marked – we can see a pile of them, but we can’t easily see any numbers. The buses are full and we’re not in the mood for squeezing in with the lunch rush hour. We walk. The weather’s beautiful.

The streets are buzzing with people. Where Córdoba felt small, Granada feels distinctly city-like. We turn onto the Calle Gran Vía de Colón. Elegant apartment buildings line the street. At ground level are all kinds of shops, from clothing to cafés and numerous banks. As the street comes to its end just southwest of the Plaza Nueva, the streets are buzzing with locals and tourists either loitering in front of the cathedral, wondering why it’s closed (this is lunchtime in Spain, stupid!), or popping in and out of the sidestreets which are lined with bars and restaurants.

Our hostal is two blocks further east from this hive of activity. A pedestrian street with strongly tourist flavour (how many languages are those menus in?) leads us to the surprisingly friendly, relaxed Hostal Costa Azul. The ladies who seem to run the place are genuinely warm and helpful. Add to that a surprisingly spacious room, the best shower I’ve had in a two-star place anywhere, and free WiFi. in the lobby. Such a nice place that we were even able to overlook the large numbers of American guests abusing the Spanish language in unimaginable ways.

Granada is home to the Alhambra, a fortress complex of palaces, gardens and fortifications. It stands high on a verdant hill overlooking the surrounding flatlands. In the distance you see the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada.

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Visiting the Alhambra requires some planning. The number of tickets for the morning, afternoon and (more limited) evening timeslots is restricted and booking tickets online in advance is wise. Failing this, some hotels can find tickets, or otherwise you can try queuing for hours at the site’s ticket office. The Alhambra is a comfortable bus ride or a steep walk up from the Plaza Nueva.

The rest of Granada is not an ugly duckling dominated by the Alhambra. The cathedral is impressive, the centre is stylish, and other points of interest include the Albaicín quarter and the gypsy caves of Sacromonte. Flamenco is big. The tourism industry is enormous. Read between the lines.


Granada is rich with restaurants, tapas bars and bocadillerías (sandwich and lunch places). As a real city, normal life co-exists pretty well with the hordes of tourists. The fancier bocadillerías aren’t overflowing with tourists and the fantastic heladerías (ice-cream shops) aren’t gouging ice-cream lovers with ludicrous prices. Small panaderías sell rather plain bread to queues of old women, and business people hurry to and from a (hopefully) delicious lunch.


Harry and I had one delicious meal. We aren’t thrilled by our guidebook’s recommendations and many promising places are closed on a Monday. We happen upon a rather touristy place with a vaguely enticing menu. Surprisingly, the waiter is markedly jollier than any previous experience in Andalucía and this, along with a rich, delicious plate of rabo de toro (oxtail stew) and an enormous skewer of grilled pork, makes for one of the most relaxed, enjoyable evening meals.


One afternoon we find an almost-empty pastelería. The lunching public has moved on. It’s about 2.30pm. The weather is warm and we need a drink and something sweet. I order a horchata (typically in Spain, a drink made of tiger nuts – chufas, though in Latin America usually made with almonds). It’s sweet and a bit powdery on the tongue. Our cakes were more interesting: a pionono de Santa Fe, made with a rolled sponge flavoured with cinnamon, filled with cream and topped with an eggy custard, lightly caramelised on top. Harry has a creamy orange and chocolate cake. It is, in fact, less creamy than many of the popular cakes in Spain.


Harry flies back to Paris the next day while I stay on. A morning highlight is an ice-cream from a place called (I think) Heladería Los Ángeles on the Acera del Darro. A mandarin ice-cream to make you cry. A quick visit to the central Mercado San Agustín reveals row upon row of seafood, meat and charcuterie, some cheese, but barely any fruit or vegetables. A number of stalls are shut, so I’ve no idea if they would offer non-animal sustenance.

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I pack my things and catch a very slow bus to the estación de autobuses, located some distance northwest of the centre. Luckily I’ve bought a mohina to keep me nourished for the journey to Sevilla.

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Travel tips

Granada: As in most of Spain, maps aren’t always oriented to North (I’ve only seen this in Japan before). this means that comparing maps of teeny, curving streets and landmarks and bus-stops and train stations can be more than a little challenging. At the Alhambra this was particularly bad, with ‘orientation’ maps of the complex being rotated seemingly at will. I think it’s done to keep the tourists on their toes.

The train station is not too far from the centre. The bus station is a long way, and you should allow considerable time for a local bus to get there through at times heavy traffic.

Travel 2008 — Córdoba (Spain)

Córdoba is the first port of call in Andalucía. It’s famous for what would have been the world’s largest mosque (the Christians buggered that up), and for a smooth gazpacho. It is absolutely crawling with tourists. A pleasant place to visit and, perhaps, to eat.


In the centre of a labyrinth of narrow streets rises an enormous rectangular building. Through the grand wooden doors, framed by ornate stucco, one comes to an orange garden. The ground is laid with pebbles, making attractive patterns. The garden feels uninviting. Under the arcade queue tourists, seeking tickets to the Mezquita.


In front of us are two elderly Spanish couples. Like an organism, we find their number multiplying as the two couples become a gaggle of pensioners swapping money to pay for tickets. “Buy two for us.” “We need three.” “Five of us here.” When the original queuers reach the booth, they have a daunting wad of cash to hand over. As out turn approaches, a northern European tourist somehow overlooks the 50 metres of queuing visitors and barges straight up to the booth.

The Mezquita is breathtaking. A forest of narrow columns would once have formed the greatest unbroken prayer space in the Muslim world. Now, plonked in the middle, is the Christian element which makes it a cathedral rather than a mosque. A strange setting. At least no-one destroyed the Mezquita completely!


Our pension (hostal) is modest, but located close to the Mezquita and the Guadalquivir River. The old man at the reception speaks no English. Our room is small and the emailed request for two beds has morphed into a short double bed. Ho-hum. The bathroom is tiny and although the towels are plush, they absorb nothing. Curious.

I drag out my list of restaurants, compiled from guidebooks and the wise people at eGullet. I go down to reception and attempt to ascertain locations from the new elderly man. He speaks no English. His Spanish is fast, local, barely intelligible. X marks the spot, I think. It’s mid-afternoon. Time to eat, Spanish time. We wander. Our first option is too daunting. Curtained windows, closed doors, loud voices. I’m a bar-nelly at the best of times, so a tapas place which does nothing to invite entry is not working for me. Fellow traveller Harry isn’t much better. The next destination looks slightly more inviting (the door is open, the menu is long and interesting), but it’s rather full. Let’s look for the extra special tip I found on eGullet. Taberna la Lechuga. X marks the spot. We get lost. We re-find ourselves. X marks a building being gutted. La Lechuga is no more.

We head back to the second place. Any chance of a table (the bar is packed)? No, says the waiter. We wander aimlessly. Hunger makes us unusually bold (or was the door now open?) and we venture into the first place we had considered. At Casa PePe de la Judería, we queue to request a table. An hour’s wait. Okay. We’ll have a beer in the bar. It’s small, with standing room for perhaps fifteen people (comfortably). We’re stuck at the pointy end of the bar. At least we can escape quickly. Five blokes next to us are ordering food. The plates arrive. Some tapas, some medias raciones (half serves, larger than a tapa).

Hunger is getting to us and we decide to eat in the bar rather than waiting for the restaurant. We order salmorejo (a thick puréed tomato/garlic/bread/oil gazpacho, local dish), a flamenquín de solomillo (rolled pork sirloin, filled with jamón, crumbed and fried), berenjenas fritas con salsa de miel (battered, fried pieces of eggplant, with a honey sauce), and croquetas caseras (potato-cheese croquettes). All are delicious, except the salmorejo. I had made this dish in the weeks leading up to departure and had a reasonable idea of what it would be like. Alas, this one is unexpectedly bitter and not something I can eat for enjoyment. Spaniards in the bar don’t seem to mind. A friend later suggests the oil used in making it may have caused the bitterness.

Córdoba is, quite literally, jam-packed with tourists. It ranks with Carcassonne or Mont Saint Michel in France as one of those places where reality is suspended for the tourist income. The only difference from the familiar hordes of Americans, Germans, Japanese, Chinese and Spanish elsewhere is that the majority of tourists here are actually Spanish.

Strangely, finding the tourist office is not easy. There are no helpful signs on street corners, pointing you to a familiar green or blue ‘i’. My guidebook map shows two offices. One is long-defunct, the other is quite simply unlocatable. We should have gone to the branch at the train station, Córdoba Central (which is misleadingly peripheral).

In the winding streets of the old centre you find cafés, restaurants, bars, hotels, tourist junk shops and, rarely, normal offices. No bakeries. No supermarket. No shops for normal people. Wander northwards and you eventually burst the tourist bubble, finding shopping streets, eateries, offices and normal life. Wonderful. We trek eastwards along the river to a shopping mall we can see in the distance. Harry goes nuts in the menswear shops (Spain has a better boy-girl balance in the clothing branch). Teenagers stare at us. We buy lemon granizadas in a simple café. People stare. We venture into the hypermarket. The staff look at us furtively, perhaps praying we don’t ask for directions.

We dine earlier the next day. El Churrasco is one of the most renowned restaurants in Córdoba. The menu is long on grilled meat and fish. At the front is a dark bar area for eating tapas and enjoying a drink. Behind this is a series of bright dining rooms, many bathed in natural light. Most guests are well dressed and Spanish, though a few foreigners lunch here too. I suspect more appear for dinner. The type of establishment also means a higher likelihood that someone, anyone, might speak a little English. Indeed, our waiter in his late 50s speaks enough English to make ordering simple when we can’t manage the Spanish. We order some fried eggplant again (if Casa PePe’s was great, El Churrasco’s should be stunning, no?). Harry orders calamares (he’s a rubber-ring addict) and duck fillet in a Pedro Ximenez sauce. I’m interested in salted Ibérico (ie, the meat of the pata negra (black foot) pig), but the waiter thinks I should go for grilled Ibérico shoulder instead. Okay. I also order a gazpacho blanco (white gazpacho, made with pine-nuts).

The calamares are okay, though less consistently good than the simple place in Madrid. The gazpacho is delicious, light, refreshing. The eggplant is presented in large slices, some still firm and all distinctly bland. We’d overlooked the lack of sauce in the description.

The duck was delicious, while the pork was, well, grilled perfectly. I’d hoped for something more to say. It was slices of excellent, tender, well cooked meat. Understanding a dish and what to expect for a given price is a cultural thing. I’m not there yet for Spain.

I order dessert. ‘Gin tonic jelly with lemon sorbet.’ Great. Firm pieces of gin-flavoured jelly with some thin liquid. Tuiles of caramel. A few juniper berries. A delightful lemon sorbet anchored, unfortunately, on a blob of sweet, thick, UHT whipped cream.

Our dining area is shared with two elderly Spanish couples, dressed well, with pearls and gold prominent. One of the ladies attacks a chunk of salmon. It fills her plate. The other lady looks on as her husband orders more food. They were already eating when we arrived and are still ordering as we prepare to leave. A platter of rabo de toro (oxtail stew) arrives. She shakes her head gently. He serves her a piece of oxtail. She tuts. He removes the piece and finds her something smaller. They both tuck in. I need to write about Iberian appetite another time.


Travel tips

Spain: knowledge of English is still very thin on the ground. Many restaurants in tourist areas have a translated menu, but don’t expect any English to be spoken by waiters except, more often, in upmarket establishments. The same applies to hotels. Our accommodation (Hostal Almanzor), listed in a number of common travel guides, had no-one with more than the odd item of English vocabulary. All email correspondence for reservation was in Spanish, even though we enquired and wrote in English. Have a phrasebook. Read it before travelling.

Córdoba: the bus and train stations are adjacent to each other, in the northwest of the city, approx 40 mins by foot from the Mezquita. Local buses are easy to use, but the routes are sometimes confusing. For more normal life, venture north beyond the Juderia area (where the Mezquita is). It’s easy to spend about two full days in Córdoba, but I would avoid weekends (crowds, and closed shops in the normal town).

Travel 2008 — transiting Singapore, Paris, Madrid

On the road and gathering experiences. I’m writing travel notes here. Something different to the normal fare, but perhaps of help to others, or mildly entertaining for regular readers. This post takes you to Singapore Airport, then Paris and Madrid.

Some heavy duty travel tips are listed separately at the end, more to help people searching for specific travel info.

Singapore Changi Airport: The new Terminal 3 is lovely, open, bright (though it’s website is just a pain in the flash animation). None of the claustrophobic atmosphere of the other terminals. Lots of free internet access too. The new transit (airside) hotel is simple but comfortable, though I’m amused by the curtain along one wall, simulating the place of a window. There’s just concrete wall behind the curtain.

A good mix of eateries catch my eye, including a dumpling and steamed bun place on the main concourse. For this non-seafood eater, dumplings present many hazards. On the menu are ‘crystal chive dumplings’. A faint yum-cha memory gives me hope these would be friendly dumplings. Bzzzz. A mouthful of prawn meat has me spitting. Luckily I’ve bought a cha siu bao (steamed pork bun) as back up. Okay. Good hoisin sauce flavour. Wash it all down with a kopi – brewed coffee with condensed milk. Sweet and strong.

Paris: An early morning arrival at Paris Charles de Gaulle Terminal 1 (fondly known by some as the ‘concrete doughnut’) usually means horrendous queues of queue-jumpers at passport control. This time, not only am I off the plane promptly, but passport control is sporting neat queue ropes and only two people are ahead of me. Hooray! Just 20 minutes later I have my suitcase and am on the automatic train to the urban railway station (RER-B T1). This little shuttle train, the CDG-VAL, is a godsend after many years of confusion at the shuttle bus-stops. (Existential question of that era: how many Americans does it take to find the right shuttle bus?)

Escaping Charles de Gaulle so quickly puts me on an RER train before 8.00am – no fighting with baggage and grumpy Parisian commuters. I alight at Gare du Nord (the main northern interchange) and the second smell greeting me is sweet, fresh puff pastry and caramelised sugar (the first smell is stale urine… it’s Paris).

These seductive aromas emanate from the bakery of a normal supermarket (Monoprix) in the station. I buy a tresse aux noix (walnut plait). Fantastic. Light pastry, a pale nut caramel inside, and caramelised walnuts on top. EUR 1.30 (less than A$ 2.50). This is why I complain so about Australian bakeries.


I meet up with Harry, friend and occasional commenter on Syrup & Tang, and later that day we head for Madrid. Having to negotiate the same airport twice in one day is not fun, and though Terminal 1 isn’t much fun, it’s still eye-catching, whereas Terminal 2 is just a horror of people, dirt and stressed people. And bad tartes aux framboises. Does the pastry *have* to be this thick?

Madrid: It’s a holiday long weekend, so almost every hotel listed in the guidebooks of the world is booked out. I had managed to secure a room in a mid-level hotel on the Paseo del Prado, opposite the Retiros gardens and just down the road from Madrid’s most famous museums. We arrive and leave outside of their opening hours, but I can just feel the culture seeping down the street. Uhuh.

The hotel room is small. And hot. The aircon hums, but emits no chill. ‘It’s a long weekend so there’s no way we can get a technician,’ says the receptionist. ‘The whole system is broken.’ But you still charge us EUR 78 for the privilege.

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We walk northwards past grand buildings and hordes of Spaniards. Our target is the Chueca area, one of Madrid’s most vibrant quarters (and previously more than a tad seedy). We wander aimlessly until hunger is overtaking the sightseeing drive. Shortly before we become irrational from hunger (read this sometime, it’s interesting) we finally see a small restaurant which seems neither too daunting nor too full nor too empty nor too expensive. The waiter is brusque. It’s Spain. The clientele is a mix of tourists and regulars. The lighting is bright. The staff exude a sense of tension and efficiency. Harry rises into a calamari nirvana, while I slurp at a tasty fabada asturiana – a broad bean stew with a few pieces of chorizo and morcilla (blood sausage). Thoroughly delicious. A good start to the Spanish holiday.

A rotten sleep (no aircon, remember) later, we’re ready for breakfast. Step 1: find somewhere not too daunting, not too full, not too empty, not too expensive. We just aren’t ready for small bars overflowing with morning crusties. Nor are we brave enough for the bocadillerias overflowing with prettier people and tourists. Opposite the Atocha train station we find an enormous, bright, uncrowded yet clearly popular bocadilleria. We plonk down, famished and after only four attempts have managed to attract a waiter’s attention. I simply must do the chocolate con churros thing, despite my first experience, now six years hence, having been a greasy tummy-torture. Harry’s primary nourishment is coffee (or beer), so he’s happy with a cafe americano.

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My churros are greasy but fresh. The chocolate is thick and pretty good, though the Iberian obsession with UHT milk is unmissable.

We go to board our train at Atocha. Our baggage is x-rayed. One of those meaningless security measures, but natural after the bombings of 2004.



We’re on our way to Córdoba, Andalucía.

Travel tips

Singapore: Changi airport has many distractions to keep you busy during a long layover, but the absolute winner, in my opinion, is the transit hotel in each terminal. They don’t cost a lot – less than SGD 60 (A$ 50) for the first six hours, at the time of writing. The rooms are a tad sterile but if, like me, your legs no longer deal with the economy class squeeze very well, don’t miss the opportunity to lie down, or shower, or watch awful Singaporean television. Advanced booking is often necessary.

Paris: The CDGVAL means that getting off the RER at the wrong terminal at Paris Charles de Gaulle (Roissy) airport no longer matters as much. You can just hop on the CDGVAL (it’s free). Heading into or out of Paris, avoid Chatelets-Les Halles station – it’s a nightmare on earth. There are probably skeletons in shadowy corners of this labyrinthine travesty.

Madrid: When taking the metro into Madrid from Madrid Barajas airport, it can be useful to look at the map and choose interchange stations which are less popular. The crowds at Nuevos Ministerios interchange station can be large, as can the distances between lines.

Madrid-Atocha (RENFE): Allow time for the security procedures (though they’re nothing like an airport). Train departure ‘gates’ are on the upper level.