Thursday, August 22, 2013

Vacances de Printemps: Italy

After our wonderful stay in Spain, Kath and I jetted over to Italy to get to know our other neighbor a little more. We took the bus back to Santander from San Sebastián and flew to Milan. We had to stay in Milan overnight because our flight got there really late, so we couldn't take a train to Treviso right away. So we got a cab to take us to our hostel, except the cab driver was on her phone the entire time, and she tried to rip us off. I had told her the address quite clearly when we first hailed the cab, and she seemed to be fine with it. But after about 10 minutes of driving in the wrong direction (I had a general sense of where we had to go because I had looked at a map before), I asked her again if she knew where we were going, and showed her the address on the reservation. She looked at it and started muttering to her friend on the phone (in Italian, but I could understand most of it because I had taken a year of elementary Italian), "Where is this street? Do you know where it is?" I could not believe that she didn't know it! Finally though, she managed to find the hostel, and the meter said we owed around 25 euros. I was not going to pay that much when she spent 10 minutes driving in the wrong direction, so I argued with her and managed to get it down to 15 euros. Having dealt with that, we checked into the hostel, where we also got some trouble because she made us pay extra due to some sort of fee, but it wasn't an exorbitant amount so we just let it go.

After staying the night in Milan, we walked to the train station the next morning and planned on buying tickets straight to Treviso, a small town near Venice where we had a CouchSurfing host, but when we saw the ticket prices we couldn't believe how high they were, so we decided to take a look at tickets to Venice. They were so much cheaper, so we bought tickets to Venice and ended up spending the afternoon in Venice. Tickets from Venice to Treviso were only 2 euros, so it saved us a lot of money, plus we got to see some of Venice!

Obligatory gondola photo =P

A lot of people I had talked to before going to Italy told me that Venice was overrated and that it wasn't worth visiting, because there were so many tourists and because it smelled so bad. I, however, really liked Venice! Maybe it was because we only spent an afternoon there--maybe it's not the best place to have a long stay in, so what we did was perfect. We spent only a brief period of time there, walked around, saw a bit of the city, got gelato (of course), and enjoyed its charming canals. I really didn't think it was that bad. I mean, yes, it is touristy, but it's still beautiful! And it didn't smell bad at all. But maybe that's because we weren't there in the peak of summer. Either way, I still think Venice is worth a visit, but maybe just a short one.

That evening, we took the train to Treviso, and met our CouchSurfing host, Fabio. He didn't have a lot of time to take us out or anything, but he told us about this little restaurant in town that was good, so he dropped us off at the entrance to the city center and we found our way there, although it did take us a while. It was called Osteria Ai Filodrammatici, and the food was pretty freaking awesome.

My dinner--rabbit and polenta! So good.
My dessert...yummmm. It was some sort of...creamy log pastry thing, no idea. SO GOOD.
Kath's cookies for dessert
We wandered a bit after dinner, got gelato, and then walked back to Fabio's place. Didn't do much that night, just chatted a bit with Fabio and his roommate.

The next day, Kath and I set off to the city center again, to do a little more exploring. Turns out, Treviso does not have a lot going on. It could also have been that we were out right at lunchtime so not many places were open, but it was still really quiet. Really pretty though--it's a very picturesque little town. We did get some pretty good Italian pizza for lunch though! Other than that, we just walked around, took pictures, got more was drizzling though, which made it less fun.


Treviso has canals too =)

More gelato, of course...I mean come on, we were in Italy!
One of the main entrances into the city center
We saw some duckies on our walk back! =D
So clearly, not the best day to explore Treviso. But it was still nice. Relaxing, for sure! Anyway, we left Treviso that day (yeah, we were only there for one night) and went back to Venice briefly, just so we could take another train back to Milan. When we got back to Milan...well, needless to say, our impression of Milan was not improved, because there was a torrential downpour going on--so much so that it was raining INSIDE the train station. Yup.

It's kind of hard to capture rain on a crappy camera, but...
...maybe you can at least see how wet the floor was.
Our cab driver this time was much nicer though! He was an older man and kept trying to teach us Italian curse words, haha. And our cab ride only cost 13 euros, as opposed to the 25 that the first cab driver tried to charge us. He drove us to the same hostel that we stayed in our first night there, and we spent our last night in Italy. The next day we took an entire day to get back to France because we took trains the entire way back. We went from Milan to Ventimiglia, then Ventimiglia to Nice, then Nice to Nimes with switches in Toulon and Marseille. Yup. It was a loooong day. But, we finally got back! And it was home sweet home for just another 3 weeks...

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Vacances de Printemps: San Sebastián

Now time for stop number 2 on our Spain-Italy trip! Kath and I started off in Granada, and our second stop was San Sebastián, but we actually flew out of Seville. To do that, we had to take the bus from Granada (if you read my last post, you'll know that Billy sent us off there), and originally we wanted to see some of Seville but we ended up staying longer in Granada so we could hang out with Billy. Plus, time was pretty tight. The most we saw of Seville was the airport...because we stayed the night in it. Yes, I know. Crazy right? But hey, we didn't have to pay for a hostel, and even though we barely slept because the benches were so hard. I was actually surprised at how tiny the airport was--there was only one terminal! I thought Seville would have a big airport since it's a pretty major city, but...nope. There were actually a few other people sharing the airport for the night, but we didn't get to know them at all.

We boarded the plane the next morning sans problème (just really early in the morning), and arrived at Santander bright and early. We were absolutely exhausted, having spent the night in an airport with probably less than 2 hours of sleep, but when we bought our bus tickets the next one didn't leave until at least a couple of hours later, so we headed into the "downtown" area (I put that in quotations because Santander is a tiny, tiny town) and ended up walking along the beach (it's a coastal town) for a good while after getting churros and chocolate--which was not as good as the stuff we had in Granada--for breakfast. Then we took the bus to San Sebastián, which took a good few hours.

View of the sea in Santander
Marine college
Yes, I made a cheesy beach sign.
Once we got to San Sebastián, our friend Thuy (who had also been a teaching assistant) met us and took us back to her and her boyfriend Alvaro's apartment. We put our things down and then we went out for a stroll around the city. It is such a beautiful city! Incredibly clean, right on the water, beautiful scenery...well, I'll let the pictures speak for themselves. I was actually able to take pictures because Thuy lent me her camera since mine was stolen, haha.

Look how clear the water is!
This used to be a square bullring. Yes, I said square.

Park pond

While walking around, we discovered the really cool and weird-looking local language, called Euskara. It's the Basque language, and it has absolutely NO relation to any of the surrounding Romance languages. Most languages in western Europe are Indo-European languages but apparently Euskara is a pre-Indo-European language. Pretty crazy, right? You'll see some examples of it in the restaurants we went to and foods we ate. 

That night we just made dinner at their place because we were tired and didn't feel like going out. Plus, Thuy said she would take us on a pintxos--first Euskara word of the post--tour (pintxos are like tapas, except the northern version, and they don't come free with a drink, unlike Granada) the next day. 

Homemade pasta and chicken dinner! Yummy =)
The next day, we did some more walking around. We originally wanted to get paella for lunch but the place Thuy wanted to take us was closed. =( So instead, we went to this really nice restaurant called Patxi Aizpuru (another Euskara name!), and had an amazing lunch. 

Thuy's meal--it's a tasting plate of a few different local dishes (Kath had the same)
My meal--three different types of squid!

Kath's dessert--pineapple soufflé
Thuy's dessert--brownie with ice cream
My dessert--baked apple with curd and apple sauce
After lunch, Thuy had to go to an appointment, so Kath and I attempted to go to the beach, but it started raining. I was pretty upset. So instead, we did a little shopping. That night for dinner, we made dumplings! That was fun. =) It was Alvaro's first time eating dumplings so he was really excited. They turned out better than my first time making dumplings without my mom's supervision (for Chinese New Year in France), but I still need to work on my skills.

Thuy also made a stir fry with the leftover filling!
Once we finished the dumplings, us three girls headed out for a "girls' night." We just got a couple of drinks, nothing crazy. It was a Tuesday, so there wasn't a ton going on, haha. Still fun though! And we dressed up, which was fun. =) 

The next day, we finally were able to get paella for lunch! The restaurant Thuy took us to is called Txoko, which is apparently one of the best places in San Sebastián for paella. So we had it (with sangria of course), and it was pretty good, but I have to be was not as good as the paella we had in Granada. Ahem. Sorry, Txoko! Lunch was followed by some amazing cheesecake, which is actually the best cheesecake in town. And this time, Thuy was right. It wasn't like American cheesecake at all, it was really light and fluffy, and not as sweet but still freaking fantastic. 

That night, we finally got to go on a pintxos tour! So like I said, pintxos is different from tapas because it's specifically a northern Spanish thing. For tapas, you get a free tapas with every drink you buy, and that's only in the south. With pintxos, you have to pay separately for the drink and the pintxos. But, usually pintxos carry a much more culinary aspect--San Sebastián is actually one of the molecular gastronomy centers of the world! Anyway, so the first bar we went to was called Paco Bueno, where we tried txakoli for the first time. Txakoli is this white wine of the region that needs to be poured from really high up to create bubbles, because the carbonation is what makes it special. 

This guy actually didn't pour it from that high up. Sad.
Calamari and gambas, what they're known for!
Second stop: Astelena, where the pintxos were absolutely incredible. We also tried a really popular cider which is also local to the area, and it was really good. 

Cider of Basque country
Mushroom ravioli. Literally the BEST ravioli I have ever had IN MY LIFE. Died and went to food heaven.
Grilled mushrooms!
Our third stop was Atari. I'll let the pictures do the talking.

Tuna with sardines
Smoked salmon
Pate on bread
The fourth and final stop was a really famous bar called Zeruko. This was a bar that actually practiced molecular gastronomy. All of their pintxos looked incredible. 

We had a dessert pintxos, which was absolutely incredible. I've never seen anything like it! It was made to look like a breakfast dish, but it was all sweet. The "egg" was a passionfruit spherification with some sort of cream surrounding it. The "bread" was citrus sponge cake, and the "sausage" was gummy forest fruits. The thing that surprised me the most was the Sichuan peppercorn flower that was randomly in the corner of the plate. 

Sichuan Peppercorn
I'm not sure what the peppercorn was supposed to represent, but it was hilarious watching Kath try it, because she had NEVER had it before. I've eaten plenty of dishes with Sichuan peppercorns so I'm used to the effect, but Kath hasn't ever had anything like it. For those of you who don't know, Sichuan peppercorns are known for their extreme numbing effect. Your mouth feels like you just went to the dentist. No joke. Add to that the extremely spicy peppers which usually accompany Sichuanese cooking and you have an entirely new culinary experience. Anyway, watching Kath have that happen to her was absolutely hilarious and I was dying of laughter throughout the entire scene. But she finally managed to get a hold of herself, and we headed back to Thuy's place for the night. 

The next day, we had another slightly shorter pintxos tour for lunch, because it was our last day. We went to three different bars. 

I don't remember the name of the first place, but the food wasn't AS good as other places.
Sirimiri, our second stop
Really good ravioli again, but not as good as the one before!
I don't even remember what this is...but it was good.
Back at Zeruko! Thuy's fish pea soup? On a mini grill!
My crab concoction
Kath's squid and rice noodles
So Zeruko was our final meal in San Sebastián, which was probably the best way to end our stay. After lunch, we went back to the apartment to get our stuff, and then Kath and I headed out to the bus station once we said goodbye to Thuy. So all in all, a wonderful stay with absolutely wonderful hosts! And some freaking phenomenal food. Calling all foodies--go visit San Sebastián!