24. September 2017 · Comments Off on 6 restaurants to try while in Barcelona · Categories: Blog Post, Food and Drink

Before my boyfriend and I went to Barcelona we did a lot of research about the area. Whenever we travel somewhere new we try to learn as much about the culture and a little of the language before we go. This trip was no different. We learned that in Barcelona they speak Catalan, although it is such a melting pot of a city that most people speak English or Spanish. But because Barcelona fought so hard for their rights to be independent and rejoice in Catalonia we felt it was only right to learn some Catalan prior to going. Using this language and with some help from our wonderful hotel we were able to find some fantastic restaurants.

As with most cities, there are the tourist restaurants and there are the locals’ restaurants. Most tourists that go to Barcelona tend to congregate around tourist attractions and will eat at locations that are handy to said attractions. This tends to be a huge rip off. So, as you walk down Las Ramblas, jam packed with tourists being herded down the pedestrian road, the street itself is lined with sidewalk restaurants, touting Sangria and local foods. From my research, Sangria is so not the thing in Barcelona. Their thing is Cava, a sparkling wine. You can get this just about anywhere, though if you are not really a fan of champagne you are not really going to like cava. We were not really a fan but gave it a shot anyway.

If you want to experience food and drink in Barcelona, you have to know where to go and where not to go. Although I do have to say that on this list are a couple of places that were right on Las Ramblas de Catalunya, but they were so good that we ate there several times because we just couldn’t help ourselves. This list is also not an exhaustive list and in no particular order but just a few highlights and places to check out the next time you find yourself in Barcelona.

  1. Bodega Biarritz (Address: Calle Vidre, 8, 08002 Barcelona, Spain

We went to this restaurant because it was rated #1 on Trip Advisor, so we figured it had to be good, right? Well the food was excellent but come to find out the reason they are ranked number one is because the waiters and waitresses give you their card at the end of the meal with their name on it asking you to give a 5-star review of the restaurant on Trip Advisor. They also want you to include their name in the review so they can get a bonus for it. So, lesson learned, don’t always go based on rankings on Trip Advisor. This is not to take anything away from the restaurant, the food was fantastic. The restaurant itself was very warm and inviting with only a couple tables available or a bar that you can dine at. The seats were made from whiskey barrels and the whole feel of the place was relaxed and secretive. The menu was a pre-fix meaning you paid one fee and they brought you a selection of their tapas, which changed regularly. The entire menu was also vegetarian, so if you are looking to have octopus (pulpo) or Iberic ham (jamon) you can forget it. They also have a decent selection of wines available to pair with your food, including red wines from the various regions in Spain. Trip Advisor stated that the lines can be out the door and that it can be hard to get a table but we didn’t wait at all, probably attests to our late eating strategy, heading out for dinner at around 10pm or later. The check came in what looked like a novel that you opened and the check was inside. The place had a lot of nice touches and the wait staff was very attentive but I was not pleased with the solicitation at the end of the meal.

  1. Casa Lola (Address: Rambla de Catalunya, 70, 08007 Barcelona, Spain)

I only mention this restaurant because it has the best patatas bravas of any place we tried (and we ordered it pretty much everywhere we went). The red sauce drizzled over the potatoes was more homemade and less from a bottle with a ton of fresh garlic that made the dish all the more savory. That was really the only difference, the sauce, but it completely changed the taste of the dish. Most places it seemed like they just used a red sauce kind of like a Cholula topped with a creamy white sauce similar to ranch dressing. They just weren’t that special anywhere else.  Otherwise, this is a chain so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend eating there for dinner but I would definitely stop in for the patatas bravas.

  1. Ciudad Condal (Address: Rambla de Catalunya, 18, 08007 Barcelona, Spain)

This was our favorite restaurant by far and it was located just down the road from our hotel on La Rambla de Catalunya. This place was always bustling at night, even at midnight, with wait times between 1 and 2 hours unless you want to stand behind the folks eating at the bar and wait for them to leave. The bar seating is first come first serve so people would get drinks and hover behind the people at the bar willing them to leave. The first time we went we got a table and got the chefs choice of 5 tapas, which changed regularly. The second time we went we sat at the bar and the third time we got a table upstairs. Each visit provided us with a different atmosphere and my recommendation is to sit at the bar. It’s a little bit crazier but you get to watch the waiters running around behind the bar scooping up the foods displayed in the bars glass case and handing them through a tiny window to the chefs beyond to go to the various customers. You can sit there sipping your Rioja, or beer, or Cava and point at the various fares under the case and they will cook it up for you right then and there. I don’t feel like all they had to offer under that case was on their menus, so I feel like you got more out of sitting at the bar. The waiters would also bring out huge cast iron skillets full of seafood paella that they would scoop out for various patrons. The one night we sat at the bar they went through at least 5-6 of those huge skillets of paella, which was also delicious in almost any place you go to eat. I highly recommend trying seafood paella during your visit, with its scallops, mussels, prawns, and clams it’s a seafood lover’s dream.

My favorite thing at this restaurant though was the grilled cuttlefish. It was cooked to perfection in olive oil infused with garlic and herbs. It was perfectly tender and melted in your mouth. My second favorite thing was the grilled artichokes, cooked similar to the cuttlefish with olive oil and garlic. One of my boyfriend’s top picks was a more traditional dish called Cabreaos egg style. This had slivers of potatoes deep fried with something similar to the patatas bravas sauce and a fried over easy egg on top. The waiter would bring it to you and then mix the ingredients together in your bowl, breaking the egg yolk and getting all the ooey gooey goodness all mixed together. The atmosphere, the food and the controlled chaos of the place made it the most wonderful place to eat and the locals thought so too.

  1. Tantarantana (Address: C / Tantarantana 24, 08003 Barcelona, Spain)

We kind of stumbled upon this place one evening while getting lost in the Gothic Quarter. A lot of the restaurants in the Gothic Quarter you may find once and then never see it again in all your wanderings because the roads are like that seen in Venice. There is no rhyme or reason, and the walls are so close you feel as though the ancient stones are closing in on you. We had to wait about an hour to eat at this place, mostly because we wanted outdoor seating, but this little restaurant was tucked into a side street and absolutely teeming with people. We got a beer and waited on the steps outside for the next available table. Our waiter really made the meal, him and the desert. I tried to speak as much Spanish/Catalan as I could and in turn, even when I switched to English, he kept going in Spanish but it somehow just worked and I thought it made the experience even more special. The food was delicious but the desert was out of this world. There is a Crema Catalana that you can find at a lot of restaurants in Barcelona and I ordered it at this restaurant and thought I had died and gone to heaven. It is served in a little shallow clay dish and is an eggy custard with sugar on top that is scorched with a torch. It is sometimes called the poor man’s crème brûlée but let me tell you it won hands down for me.

  1. La Terminal (Address: Carrer Gran De Gracia, 57, 08012 Barcelona, Spain)

We stopped here during our tour of the Gracia area. It seemed like it was going to be a really fancy place to get a beer but thought it looked cool so we stopped to check it out. The bar had several of their own beers on tap and in the back of the place were tables where you could order a meal. We sat next to the bar and were given a bowl of olives and we each tried a couple of the beers they offered on tap. There was huge map of the world on the wall where we sat with the main airports around the world. The whole place seemed clean and fresh and completely unlike the rest of the Gracia area. The beer was well-made and I totally expected each beer to cost around 7 Euros. For the 4-5 beers we had, our bill was 10 Euros. I couldn’t believe it. I think I almost fell out of my chair. For beer that good to be that cheap I thought they had made a mistake but nope, that’s what happens when you leave the tourist traps of Barcelona. Quality food and drinks for less.

  1. Kælderkold (Address: Carrer de Cardenal Casañas, 7, 08002 Barcelona, Spain)

In contrast to La Terminal we found this microbrewery just off Las Ramblas. We found it before La Terminal and were excited to see a brewery since we both like to drink and brew our own beer and enjoy trying different microbrews. The bartender was originally from Denmark and the place had only been open for a short while. When we arrived, there was only one other couple there. They had a very interesting selection of beers from different areas around the world. I tried a sour beer, which was a first and it had an interesting, pucker your lips kind of taste. The beer here cost significantly more than the beer at La Terminal, being about 7 Euros a beer. It was cool to see and after being there for just a short time the place filled with people and became more of a happening, loud, laughing scene.

These places are just a taste of what Barcelona has to offer. Some things to think about when choosing where to eat and drink in and around the city:

  1. Tips are generally included on your bill and the people there don’t expect a tip on top of that. We learned that the hard way. Not only did we eat at a bit of an overpriced tourist trap, we left a huge tip, one you would expect to leave in America but is totally unnecessary in Barcelona. Lesson learned. Don’t do as we did.
  2. Try to speak the language, even a little. Trying goes a long way and people really appreciate that and it’s fun. This goes for ordering food and drinks as well.
  3. Go out to the Gracia area, this tends to be more of a local’s spot and you are more apt to find more reasonably, if not super cheap, places to eat and drink that are just as good, if not better than the ones in the other areas of Barcelona. The Gracia area has an entirely different feel from the rest of the city. You can tell immediately that you have left the comfort of the tourist locations and stepped into the real Barcelona. It’s more natural and raw, there is nothing fake or over dramatized about this area. You can feel the dust of the ages in the air as locals hang out at tables outside drinking and laughing with friends. There are so many restaurants to choose from in this area and little bars stuffed with people at night that my recommendation would be to stop in and try a little something at each. Have a beer at one place, a couple tapas at another and keep moving, this is the best way to really experience the scene in the Gracia area. It’s a fun and lively place and bustling with people everywhere, crammed into little bars yelling over one another while hanging out with friends. It’s absolutely wonderful.
  4. You might find a place you really like and decide you want to eat there again but may never find it again, thanks to the crazy, winding streets in places like the Gothic Quarter and the Born area. This happened to us at the first place we ate at in the Gothic Quarter. We loved that restaurant. It had some of the best octopus, pork knee and other specialty dishes you cannot find just anywhere. The unfortunate part is that we didn’t get the name of it and while wandering around the Gothic Quarter, which we did every day, we never found it again. All I have of the place are the food memories and one photo.    
  5. Eat as the locals do. The locals dine late. Though apparently, from my research they have a light breakfast, a large lunch and a small dinner. However, dinner is usually not until 10pm or later. We would head out for dinner any time after 10pm and there would be loads of people out eating tapas (or small plates).
  6. Another “eat as the locals do” recommendation that we loved during our stay is to pick up a bottle of wine, stop at a local bakery for some fresh bread and La Boqueria for some delicious Iberic ham (jamon) and cheese. Take it back to your hotel and enjoy a snack on your balcony. We did this every day, always stopping at the same little bakery, which was open all the time, even late at night, called Maxi Pan. We would cut up some meat and cheese and drink a bottle of Rioja or Catalan red wine bought from an outdoor farmer’s market. It was always one of my favorite parts of the day and a good break from the insane amount of walking we did.

That was our food and drink experience in Barcelona. Like I said it’s not an exhaustive list but it’s a good start when your new to the city. Where have you eaten in Barcelona? Is there one place that stands out most to you? Did you stumble upon some really amazing locals spot that you want to share? Tell me about your experience, I would love to learn more.

11. September 2017 · Comments Off on Is a yoga retreat at an Ashram a good idea? · Categories: Blog Post, Retreats

“Do not let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace” – Dalai Lama

For a long time I have wanted to go on a yoga and meditation retreat. I finally decided to take the plunge this year. I talked about it a lot with my good friend Kali who decided to come along on this journey with me. I think starting out I had this vision of what it was going to be like.

I had recently watched an episode of Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders (which I love) and it was based at a yoga retreat in Nepal. The episode opens with a woman finishing up a yoga session and retiring to her tent with her tea overlooking the beautiful snow capped mountains of Nepal. That was all I needed to be hooked on the idea of doing a yoga retreat.

So I started researching yoga/meditation retreats near me. One that wouldn’t cost an excessive amount and would provide me with the chance to step away from my every day life and get in touch with myself again. I consider myself an on again/off again meditater and yogi so I wanted to spend time developing my practice. I found a website that listed a ton of different retreats and came across one in the Catskills of New York called Savanada Yoga Ranch. What instantly grabbed my attention was that I could camp and that they had a hiking themed weekend. It seemed perfect and it only cot $150 for two nights stay and all your meals.

The plan was to arrive by 2 pm on Friday. This would give us a chance to set up our tents and make it to the yoga class at 4 pm. This, however, was not to be. We got stuck in the craziest, most random traffic, complete with detours and a bit of a culture shock and arrived at around 3 pm.

3 pm Friday afternoon – Arrival:

It wasn’t the easiest place to find. We found ourselves winding through little towns before ending up on a long road that was lined with lots of houses owned mostly by Orthodox Jews and suddenly there was a sign for the ranch. Pulling up the driveway the place seemed rather idyllic. We went through the door of the main building with the little registration sign and the lady behind the desk got us checked in and gave us a very quick tour. Then we were led up to a big open field to set up our tents.

4:15 pm Friday afternoon:

We missed the first yoga class, but once our tents were set up we decided to do a little exploring of the grounds. There were two temples a short walk from the area, one on a wonderful trail through the woods (by far my favorite spot at the ranch). We explored the woods for a while before heading back to the main area. The weather was threatening rain and I had a sad looking little tent which I covered in a tarp (which apparently had some holes in it) in an attempt to stay dry.

6 pm Friday – Dinner:

There was a large bell in the middle of the ashram that was rang for each event in the day. The food was fantastic, if you like vegan food. My friend Kali wasn’t really all about it mainly because it wasn’t really her taste but there was enough to make a small meal. It had started to rain by this time. It started out as a light drizzle but quickly became a torrential downpour. Dinner was followed by Satsang, which consisted of meditation, followed by chanting, followed by yogic teaching. Before heading to Satsang I discovered my tent had a slight leak in the top and my bed was getting dripped on. I added a second tarp to my little weekend abode and headed to Satsang.

I am not used to trying to meditate in a sitting position for 30 minutes and by 5 minutes my feet were asleep and my butt hurt and I started to fidget. My lower back was in a world of hurt by the time the meditation ended but I tried. The chanting was interesting to say the least. I should step back and say that our hiking group was not the only group at the Ashram that weekend. There was also a kids camp there and a yoga teacher training group. This Ashram offers a plethora of training and “vacations” so there is always something going on and lots of people around.

10:15 Lights out:

Back in my tent I fell asleep to the sound of the wind and rain raging outside, hoping for a better day tomorrow.

5:30 am Saturday morning – Hike day:

The bell rang signalling it was time for the morning Satsang. Same thing as the previous evening, we meditated, chanted and listened to a yogic lecture. Our group was going to hike the Catskills that day and were given an early breakfast before departing for the hike. The hike was about a 45 minute drive away and we were expected to carpool there with our own vehicles and pay the fee to enter the park. This I was not expecting and there was no mention of it on the website so I a little annoyed by that but it was not a huge deal.

So fun fact, I was diagnosed with Lyme’s disease prior to the retreat I was given doxycycline and if you have ever been on that medication you know you are not supposed to have direct sun exposure. So I was covered head to toe in clothing and had applied SPF 50 sunscreen as a precaution (and the sun wasn’t even out). About 1 hour into the hike I was pouring sweat but there was nothing I could do about it. The hike was by far the best part of the trip, being at Minnewaska State Park Preserve. We hiked a loop trail to a spot called Gertrude’s Nose, which had amazing views, where I wish I could have spent more time meditating in nature. The entire hike took about 5 hours.

By the end of the hike we were starving, because they neglected to tell us that they would not be supplying us with a lunch or snacks. I was also getting a caffeine headache from a lack of coffee, though the tea they supply at the Ashram was amazing! Kali and I had carpooled with 2 ladies from NYC, a pediatrician and single mom who loved spending all her time outside in nature and a massage therapist who lived in the heart of NYC. We quickly decided a pitstop was badly needed in one of the towns on our way back and got coffee and sandwiches. Needless to say we missed the afternoon yoga class. So thanks to our hike that day we had effectively missed the 2 yoga classes that day.

When we got back to the Ashram we decided to retire to our tents for some rest before dinner. This was the second best part of my entire stay at the Ashram. I did a meditation using my favorite meditation app “Simple Habit,” then I took a nap and did some journaling. It was the rejuvenation I was looking for.

7 pm evening Satsang:

By this time, this was my third Satsang and I have to say, I am not overly religious but something didn’t feel right to me. Maybe it was because I didn’t understand what we were chanting or what they stood for but I got a sudden urge to go to church (which I do on occasion anyway but that’s beside the point). It was just starting to rub me the wrong way and I was determined that when I returned home I would find out what the yogic teachings were all about.

5:30 am Sunday – Final day:

On our final day at the Ashram instead of our regular Satsang we did a silent walk mediation around the grounds, ending up at the little Temple in the woods that I loved so much. The morning was beautiful and there was even a deer that we stopped to watch while on our silent walk. Today we finally made it to yoga, the only yoga class I made it to the entire weekend. It was held outside on a covered patio. It was a slower meditation style than I am used to, with a lot of breathing but was still very restorative. We then had our breakfast and packed up to head home.

Some final thoughts:

This was not the idyllic yoga retreat I had hoped for. From the first moment we arrived until we left no one was overtly friendly or welcoming. I expected at least a hello or a smile or something when the people of the Ashram passed me but they completely ignored me. It wasn’t as welcoming as I had hoped. One visitor told us that she was very disappointed with the place and would not be coming back.

The hiking weekend or “yoga vacation” seemed poorly organized and they didn’t really provide the best instructions going into it. Overall, I was pretty disappointed with the whole thing. I was looking for a restorative weekend to get away and reconnect with myself but I don’t feel like it affected much. Next year my friend and I are going to try it again, somewhere else.

Interesting tidbits:

During my research on the Ashram and yogis in general I learned an interesting tidbit, not only are they vegetarian, they do not allow garlic or onions which I thought was a weird quirk. So here’s what I found on that:

Spiritual Harm –

Onions and garlic excite the lower nature of man, making him aggressive and blunting his natural sensitivity. When mixed with the nectar of the gods, garlic and onion may have some medicinal properties. Nevertheless, they strongly affect the lower chakras. That is why those who seek spiritual elevation avoid these foods.

Physical Harm –

Garlic causes burns of the mucous membranes of the esophagus and the stomach, generating a severe spasm that, in turn, leads to weakness and malfunction of the digestive organs.

Weird right?

That was my first experience at a yoga retreat and I think next time I will try to find a retreat that is not at an Ashram. Have you had any experiences with yoga retreats or Ashrams? Let me know your thoughts or suggestions for my next yoga adventure.

 

05. September 2017 · Comments Off on Rome in a Day · Categories: Blog Post, History & Culture

“Better to see something once than hear about it a thousand times.” – Asian Proverb

Rome gave me my best and worst experiences during my time in Italy and it all started when I boarded the train from Grado and realized I had left my credit card with my boyfriend. My boyfriend was staying in Italy for a couple conferences and I was flying out of Rome so it was my first solo travel experience outside of North America. I boarded the train and found my car, only to find out the other 5 people in the car did not speak a word of English. This made for a long and somewhat uncomfortable ride to Rome.

After several hours, we reached Rome. By this point I was so overwhelmed by the whole situation that I rushed to the nearest washroom, shut myself into a stall and sobbed. Yup, sobbed. I had no idea where my hotel was, how I would get there, what I was thinking travelling by myself to such a place, basically I was a mess.

Eventually I pulled myself together and found a payphone where I called my hotel and found out how to get there. I had chosen a hotel close to the airport for convenience sake but it was extremely far from the city and not well connected. If you have the time to spend in Rome, stay within the city, it’s not worth staying near the airport.

After a goodnight sleep I was ready to head into Rome for my one-day whirlwind tour. I had pre-planned my must-see sights. I took a bus into the city and started with the Sistine Chapel. When I arrived, they had yet to open for the day and I ended up waiting in line with a couple of fellow Canadians, which made me feel more comfortable and relaxed. The Sistine Chapel is spectacular, albeit it is hard to really enjoy its beauty when you are elbow to elbow with 100s of 1000s of other people and a booming voice overhead constantly telling you not to take photos. Unfortunately, that kind of ruined it for me. I expected to come into a quiet chapel where I could gaze up at that miraculous ceiling painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, but it was not to be. It’s too crowded and the magic was gone.

I left the Sistine Chapel slightly discouraged but headed for the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain, which did not disappoint. Though crowded the Trevi Fountain is so embedded with incredible history and beautiful architecture it’s hard not to love it. Trevi Fountain is one of the oldest water sources in Rome, it’s made from the same material as the Colosseum and is charitable. Every night the coins thrown into the fountain are collected and donated to a charity called Caritas, that makes me smile just thinking about it.

After that I went to the Pantheon, took the typical tourist photo with the hole in the ceiling and quickly moved on to the Colosseum. By this time, I felt pretty savvy with the subway system and when I walked out of the subway and saw the Colosseum I had the jaw dropping, heart stopping experience of seeing that incredible, history steeped piece of architecture in person and in that moment the number one spot on my bucket list had officially been checked off. As I approached the Colosseum I was approached by an extremely good looking Australian guy who asked me if I wanted to purchase tickets for a tour of the Colosseum and the surrounding ruins. I did the stupid girl thing and just nodded, breathing yes in response and gave him my 20 Euros.

It turns out that was an excellent choice. The tour guide was this older gentleman who took his time talking about the history of the Colosseum, so much so that some of the others on the tour were starting to get irritated. To which he promptly noted that Rome was not built in a day. I laughed out loud and that certainly shut up the others. The tour really gave you a feeling of being a part of the history of such a place. You could sit there and listen to him talk about the games and how they took place and almost visualize it happening as you sat in the stands. The follow-up tour of the ruins was equally good, with a young girl explaining the history of the area.

After that I had officially checked off all my must dos and wandered the city for a while longer before finding the bus back to the hotel. However, I got off the bus way before I was supposed to. This lead to me walking up a main road for about 45 minutes, in the dark, alone towards my hotel. I don’t know how I do it but once I have seen a place I usually remember the directions and how to get around after that. Several cars stopped to ask me if I needed a ride, which was a little unnerving until about the third car. Each car I said no to seemed to immediately accept it and drive away wishing me safe travels. It was the oddest thing but left me feeling rather safe.

This city has so much to offer, I really hope to see Rome again someday, as well as more of Italy. What was your experience with Rome? Too crowded with tourists or did you find some quiet alcove that made you feel one with the locals?