cologne

From Brussels Jack, Anna and Alexia flew back to California. My flight back home would be out of Rome, but not for almost another dozen days. I hadn’t planned my route to Rome, but I wanted to visit at least Paris and Zurich. Before heading out to Paris though, I decided on a whim to visit the city of Cologne in Germany. It ended up being a convenient side trip. It’s not too far away from Brussels, and it’s on the Thalys high speed rail system, which linked up Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne, and Paris.

koln4I arrived at the Cologne train station completely famished. Almost immediately I spotted a hot dog stand, this one specialized in Currywurst. They take a sausage and slice it up and pour curry over it, and serve it with a piece of bread. I’ve never had curry and sausage before, but it was actually quite tasty.

kolnFrom the station you can see the Cologne Cathedral, which is apparently the most visited landmark in Germany.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince it was raining, I decided to head to my hotel first so I could drop off my bags. I stayed at der Lowenbrau, a hotel and restaurant, although in my opinion it wasn’t that great as either. The main reason why I stayed there were convenience (it was a short walk to the train station) and price.

koln1My room was very tiny, and the bathroom was a separate room down the hallway, the size of a closet. In fact when I sat on the toilet my feet were in the shower. But it was cheap and comfortable enough.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe food at the restaurant downstairs was pretty decent. I ordered a schweinshaxe, which was a huge hunk of meat on bone, washed down with a huge glass of kolsch, the local beer in Cologne.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfterwards I sort of just wandered around town. My hotel was near the river. Cologne is apparently a very bike friendly town– despite the rain I saw tons of people biking.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Romisch-Germainisches Museum was located close to the cathedral. I stopped there for a while to get out of the rain.

koln2My favorite part of this museum was the various floor mosaics.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince it was raining most of the day I ended up buying a subway pass and spent a lot of the day wandering around on the subway and light rail system. I took the subway to the town gate and stopped briefly for a picture.

koln3

Then I wandered around the shopping district. They had some nice camera stores, with a decent amount of used Pentax lenses, which are somewhat hard to find back home. At the camera store I saw a picture of the Cologne Cathedral with a bridge from the river, so I decided that I wanted to try to take that same picture.

IMGP5673But by the time it got dark, I started to get lazy, and so I decided I didn’t wanna cross the river. So instead I took a picture of the Cathedral with the Modern art museum in the foreground. It’s not as cool a picture, but I like it because it reminds me why I like Europe in general. It’s a mix of the old (construction of the Cathedral began in the 1200′s) with the new (the Cologne cathedral is near the very modern looking train station and modern art museum).

brussels

After London we took a short flight across the English Channel to Brussels. To be honest I didn’t really know what to expect from Brussels. I know Belgium is famous for waffles and chocolate, two things that I’m not too interested in. Belgium’s also famous for beer, and for that I was somewhat excited.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the famous attractions in Brussels is the Manneken Pis, a small statue of a peeing boy. According to TripAdvisor this statue is the number one attraction in Brussels. After seeing the statue and feeling very underwhelmed, I was beginning to think Brussels would be kind of a bust.

brussels1We went to the Grand Place next, which is a big plaza surrounded by golden gilded buildings.

brussels2The area around the Grand Place was filled with restaurants and shops. There’s a small alley that’s completely lined with restaurants, and each has a somewhat shady looking guy out front accosting tourists to try and get them into their restaurants. My favorite shop was a beer shop, with an incredible selection of beers that were all brewed in Belgium. We ended up buying a half dozen bottles to try.

brussels3Speaking of beer, we went on a brewery tour. It was to a small brewery called Cantillon that has been brewing Gueuze, a Belgian lambic beer since 1900. They’re still using the same machinery and methods from back then– they don’t have refrigeration, the beer is naturally cooled by air in the attic.

brussels4We had a guided tour of the process of making traditional lambic beer. We had a tasting at the end. The beer was unlike any beer I’ve ever had– it was incredibly sour and not very bubbly. Our somewhat snobby guide said that’s what traditional beer’s supposed to taste like– all I can say is I’m glad for progress…

brussels5The attraction I was most looking forward to was the Atomium building. It’s an interesting piece of architecture that supposedly is built in the shape of iron crystal. It’s next to a theme park called Mini-Europe, which was closed, but we got a nice view of the theme park from inside Atomium.

brussels7The Atomium building is made up of several spheres connected by tubes. Inside the tubes are elevators and stairways to the spheres.

brussels6The upper spheres contain a rotating exhibit, when we went it had some random furniture exhibit. Not that interesting, in my opinion. But the views of the surrounding city from the upper spheres were nice.

brusselsWhat I remember most of Belgium is the food. Surprisingly my favorite plate of food from the entire trip was from Belgium, which is saying a lot, considering I also went to the culinary powerhouses of Spain, France and Italy. It was a plate of beef carpaccio and foie gras– the foie gras and thinly sliced raw beef both melted in my melt. Another dish I enjoyed was the moules frites, which is steamed mussels served with fried potatoes. I’ve heard it said that Belgian food is French quality food with German portion sizes. I think that’s a fair assessment.

london

After Barcelona we flew into London. Since London is not part of the Schengen area we had to go through customs. When asked by the customs agent why we were in London, someone in our group responded with “the food.”

“Sorry, you’re in the wrong country…” the custom agent replied. I had heard that British food sucked, apparently the locals also think so. Food is not the only reason why I travel, however, and London has a lot of things going for it besides the food. Apparently shopping is one of them– our apartment was very close to Carnaby street, one of the major shopping districts in London, and there were always tons of tourists out shopping. I’m not really interested in shopping, but London also has plenty of famous tourist attractions and museums that I was interested in seeing.

londonWe arrived in the evening and went exploring on our first night. We walked to the Thames riverfront and saw the London Eye and Big Ben, along with Westminster Abbey.

london1We also saw the Queen Victoria monument and Buckingham Palace. I wanted to see a Beefeater, but didn’t see any. Either they don’t come out at night, or we were in the wrong place. (I looked it up later– they’re at the Tower of London, not Buckingham Palace.)london2

I’m a big fan of Anthony Bourdain– I watch whatever episodes of his shows “No Reservations” and “The Layover” that I can get my hands on. In his London episode of “The Layover” one of his stops was to Bar Italia, so we had breakfast and coffee there. From there we walked through Chinatown on our way to the British Museum.

london3We spent a good amount of the day at the British Museum and the National Gallery. They are kind of like the Smithsonian in that they’re free to enter.

london4The British museum was really cool, with a really cool atrium. My favorite part of the museum was the Egyptian exhibits, complete with mummies. Probably the most famous artifact in the museum is the Rosetta Stone– it was cool to finally see it in person.

IMGP5584Afterwards we headed back to the Thames, this time crossing the Hungerford bridge. The view from the Hungerford bridge ended up being my favorite in London, with both the London Eye and Big Ben visible at the same time.

london5From there we took the subway to get further upriver (or is downriver?) to the Tower Bridge.

london7For the most part the food was pretty disappointing (as expected.) I ordered a plate of roast beef at one of the pubs we visited– the meat was tough and the rest of the sides were bland… the meal tasted like the food you get on an airplane. The best meal I had in London was Indian food. The funny thing is Indian food is pretty much the national food of London– even the most British looking pubs had curry or tikka masala  on the menu.

london6There are some gastronomic delights the British do exceptionally well though. One thing I really enjoyed was scotch eggs. They’re basically soft boiled eggs, wrapped in sausage, breaded and then deep fried. If they’re done right they’re still runny on the inside, which makes for pure awesomeness when you bite into it. The other thing that I really enjoyed was Guiness (which of course I can get in the US, but it’s slightly harder to find on tap). A well poured pint of Guiness on draft is strikingly beautiful (and quite refreshing).

barcelona

From Madrid we took a Renfe AVE high speed train to Barcelona. It ended up costing us about 100 euros per person– if we had booked ahead of time online we probably could have saved a good 30 or 40 euros per person. If I could do it all over again, I think I’d take the night train instead. It would have been about half the cost, and it would have allowed for more time in both Madrid and Barcelona, and it would save us from having to pay lodging for one night.

IMGP5232The AVE train was comfortable though, and it got us to Barcelona in a relatively quick three hours, so I guess it wasn’t too bad a choice. We arrived in Barcelona in the evening, and checked into our AirBnb apartment. Our host was really nice– she emailed a list of things for us to do in Barcelona, and lamented the fact that we really only had one full day in Barcelona.

barcOur host recommended we eat at the Mercat Princesa, a food market similar to the Mercado de San Miguel that I enjoyed in Madrid. She actually said she liked it better than San Miguel– but I was actually disappointed when we arrived there. It’s a lot smaller than the San Miguel market, and everything was pricier.

barc1We wandered around the area near our apartment. In the area there’s a lot of narrow streets. We’d walk down one of the narrow streets, which would all of a sudden open out into a plaza.

barc2Another time we were walking down a narrow alley, then all of a sudden it opened out into a plaza with an medieval church.

barc3Down another random alley we walked, then all of a sudden we walked into a plaza filled with people waiting for a show. There was a video projected onto a building– it was an entertaining video, but with a really random story that I couldn’t really follow. To me that kind of symbolizes the charm of Barcelona. I kept getting lost down the narrow streets, but I’d keep finding something random and interesting.

barc4After wandering around the narrow streets for some time, we walked down La Ramba, the major tourist street, until we reached the waterfront. There’s a monument to Christopher Columbus there. I thought that was kinda random, isn’t he Italian? Well actually he is Italian, but his expedition was financed by Spain, and after discovering the new world he reported to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in Barcelona. So that explains the monument. (Thank you Wikipedia…)

barc5Near the waterfront there’s a ton of restaurants. We stopped at a random one because the guy out front gave me a free sample of sangria. Because the guy was kind of aggressive to get us in the door, I thought the food wouldn’t be all that good, but this actually ended up being one of my favorite meals of the trip. We ordered the fried anchovies and a small order of paella. Both were quite tasty.

barc6The next morning we headed up to Montjuic castle, which is on a hill not too far from where we were staying. Ordinarily there’s a funicular and a cable car to the top, but both were closed for maintenance, replaced by a bus in the off season.

IMGP5259From Montjuic castle there’s a great view of Barcelona’s bustling port.

IMGP5299Looking in the other direction there’s an amazing view of the city.

barc7The hill surrounding Montjuic is a big public park, with many amenities including baseball fields and even a model car track. There’s also a botanical garden, which we visited, which had a bonsai exhibit. From the hill you can also get a view of the nearby Olympic stadium.

barc8After Montjuic we headed to Park Guell, another hillside park. This park was designed by the famous Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. The architecture in this park was really striking– I don’t really know how to describe it, but it’s different from anything else I’ve ever seen.

barc9The park has a paid area that we didn’t visit. I just took pictures of it from afar using my zoom lens.

IMGP5348Here’s another picture of the paid area. At the top of this photo is the terrace from the pictures above it. In the center of this picture is a circle, behind this is a famous lizard mosaic statue.

barc10Next we went to the Sagrada Familia, a church designed by Gaudi. He passed away in 1926, but construction continues today on this church. It’s scheduled to be completed around 2026, the centennial of his death.

barc11The inside of the sanctuary appears to be mostly complete. To me, the ceiling was the most striking feature. Most churches I’ve seen are built on arches– this church is built on hyperboloids. (Heh, I actually don’t even know what that means.)

barc12We went up one of the spires. There’s an elevator to the top, and then hundreds of spiral steps down. This staircase was pretty scary, because unlike most spire spiral staircases I’ve been on, you can see all the way down to the bottom in the center of this one.

barc13We visited one more Gaudi designed building. Apparently the combined set of Gaudi designed buildings forms a Unesco Heritage site. Afterwards we had dinner then went to see a flamenco dance performance.

Despite having only one full day in Barcelona, I felt like we saw a lot of what Barcelona had to offer. I’m sure we’re really just scratching the surface though. I definitely want to return someday and continue wandering down the narrow streets of this city, I’m sure I’ll discover many more amazing sites.

mercado de san miguel

The Mercado de San Miguel is a food market located close to the Plaza Mayor in Madrid. When I travel I like to visit these sorts of markets. I’ve been to some of the famous ones, like the St Lawrence Market in Toronto and of course Pike’s Place in Seattle. Up until now my favorite has been the Nachsmarkt in Vienna, but it’s now been dethroned by the Mercado de San Miguel.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe mercado is built with glass walls all around, so you can see a lot of the awesome food from the street outside.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe market is quite crowded in the evenings, but it’s much quieter in the morning.

fish-tapasThere were many different vendors, and it seemed like each had its own specialty. This one, for example, specialized in seafood tapas. The ones on the left are topped with octopus and salmon, in the middle there’s various anchovy tapas, monkfish liver, and tuna tapas. I tried one with salmon and one with crab salad topped with caviar. In hindsight I should’ve just tried all of them, but I especially regret not trying the monkfish liver. I’ve heard it described as “foie gras of the sea” and seeing as how I like foie gras (and don’t get to eat it often since it’s banned in California) I definitely regret not trying that one.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is of course a vendor dedicated to Iberico ham. This guy slices it up for you and you can eat it right on the spot.

drinks-olivesThere were also vendors dedicated to various beverages, like this one that had casks of different types of sherry, including a cask of amontillado (haha I wonder how many people would get that Edgar Allen Poe refernce…) I tried one glass of sherry (I forget which), one rebujito, which is a light sherry mixed with soda, and a glass of sangria. Each glass came with olives, which were the best tasting olives I’d ever had. I’d order drinks just to get the olives.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASpeaking of olives, they even had a vendor that pretty much just sold olives. In hindsight I should have tried some of these, even though they seemed pretty expensive. On the other hand, paying for olives doesn’t seem like a hot deal when I can buy a drink and get olives for free…

IMGP5225There was paella, of course, but I decided not to try any, since our next stop would be Barcelona. I figured paella would be better there since it’s on the coast. And also I figured freshly made paella would be better.

octopus-urchinThese were probably my favorite. On the left is an octopus salad. It seemed pretty simple to make, I might have to try making it, if I can find somewhere to buy fresh octopus. It’s just boiled octopus with a bit of bell peppers and red onion, with a sprinkling of sea salt and a drizzling of olive oil. I think the difficulty for me would be in finding good fresh octopus and cooking it so that it’s tender. My other favorite was stuffed urchin. This I have no clue how to go about making. Next to the urchin is a tortilla espanola, which is basically a potato and egg frittata.

We ended up eating at the Mercado de San Miguel a few times in the couple of days we had in Madrid. It was definitely one of the biggest highlights of the trip for me.