Friday, 31 October 2008

The Honeymoon is Over (pt 2: food)

Aaagh yes, food. Spain, Portugal and France not being famous for the veggie-friendliness of their cuisine. Although OA and I are not currently the most observant of veggies and have been known to lapse into what OA refers to an fish-n-chipocrisy.
Actually, almost any decent-sized city in any of these countries shouldn't present too much of a problem (although I wouldn't fancy trying to be vegan on a trip like this). Granted, we ate quite a lot of felafel. And granted, most of it wasn't particularly great felafel, particularly the undercooked monstrosity served by a sniggering would-be thief at a place called something like Asteria on the tourist-trap Rue de la Huchette in Paris, and that at Al-Andalus in Granada, where the felafels were re-heated in a microwave and where the guy putting the pitas together said, when I pointed out that he'd just ladled mayonaise sauce instead of humus all over everything, "I'm just a waiter not a chef." Which raises the questions of a) why he was doing the cooking then and b) why this place is recommended in the Lonely Planet guide - the answer to that being the Granada and Cordoba sections of the Lonely Planet guide to Andalucia are bobbins...
But when we weren't eating cheap on dodgy felafel or on various types of cheese and/or spinach pastries in various bakeries, we had some lovely food and drink in various small restaurants along the way.
First up was Restaurante Arrayanes in Granada, just off the main street of teashops in the touristy bit of the picturesque old quarter of the Albayzin. Run by a Moroccan Berber called Mustafa who seems to switch between half a dozen different languages with no visible effort, it has a small veggie offering, but the vegetarian cous cous and the Middle Eastern starters were superb (as were the fish kebabs, for the sinners amongst us).
Another good place to eat in Granada, whose name I unfortunately failed to take down, was the first bar/restaurant on the Campo del Principe in the Realejo if you are coming up from Calle Molinos. A number of eateries in Granada do a bizarre but lovely dish consisting of tempura-style slices of aubergine, crisp-fried and then drizzled with dark honey or something like pomegranate molasses. This place also did a great, if slightly weird, spinach pie with pineapple in it.
Restaurante Ruta del Azafran also did some great salads, as well as offering a great view of the Alhambra from its position as one of a row of tapas bars and restaurants on the Paseo de los Tristes. But more importantly for me (sinning again) it introduced me to the lovely Granada wines of the Bodega Barranco Oscuro - gorgeous rich ripe reds which unfortunately I have yet to find a UK stockist for. If I'd known that I'd have lugged more than one measly bottle home with me (or made OA lug a couple instead).
On to Cordoba, which was frankly and depressingly a bit of a tourist trap despite the breathtaking beauty of the Mesquita (as long as you go first thing in the morning when it's free and tour groups aren't allowed in - but the rubbish Lonely Planet won't tell you that, or not anywhere you'd notice it) but where there were lots of places selling tortilla de patatas - Spanish omelette - to keep any empty corners of stomach well filled.
Seville, however, was just great. I could stay there for weeks and just eat. And the writer of this section of the guidebook did seem to have actually visited some of the places she was talking about so some of the recommendations actually existed/bore some resemblance to the descriptions.
Firstly, for bog-standard but filling pizza in a touristy but very charming setting (a renovated hammam) was Restaurante San Marco, in the heart of the tourist district of Barrio de Santa Cruz. For excellent pizza and pasta but lousy (rude, by turns brusque and slow) service, Ristorante Cosa Nostra on Calle del Betis, a picturesque street with a number of bars where you can have a pre- or post- dinner drink watching the bats catching midges over the mighty river Guadalquivir.
And for fab Cuban food with delightful service, Habanita, on a tiny side street called Callejon Golfo on the Centro area of town. This place knows its vegan from its vegetarian and needy vegans could indeed eat different and very reasonably-priced and delicious things there every meal for about a week, if they needed. The most interesting bit of the menu was the Cuban food, which included standards like fried yucca and (very good) black beans with rice, but also featured some fantastic savoury banana balls in tomato sauce (we ordered a second dish of these, and got an extra one for our enthusiasm). But un-Latino-mooded veggies could go for a range of tofu, vegetable or seitan casseroles, pies and bakes.
And now I've run out of steam, so I'll do Lisbon, Madrid and Paris another day...

Monday, 27 October 2008

The Honeymoon is Over (pt 1: transport)

Well, the attempt at a (reasonably) low-impact honeymoon is done, with varying degrees of success.
My number one Top Tip for trans-European train travel is now Break The Journey Each Way. Ie, if you don't leave in the south of England and therefore can't hop on a morning Eurostar, leaving lots of time to catch your sleeper on to Italy, Spain etc, then the precariousness of train times can make it well worthwhile factoring some extra give into your itineraries, whether it's a night in London or Paris.
The sorry tale behind this bitter comment is partly due to the Eurotunnel fire in September, which is of course a pretty extraordinary circumstance. Also, being a Strange Person who started off her honeymoon sans new husband and with a friend, going on a writing course, I was tied into more pressing timetables than on most holidays. But when someone decided to end their life by jumping onto the fast live rail between Watford and Harrow & Wealdstone stations, holding us up for two hours, I was somewhat split between sorrow that somebody needed to finish it this way, pity for the poor train drivers who have to live with their memories of suicides, and cuticle-chewing, hair-pulling stress at the knowledge that we were going to miss not only our Eurostar to Paris but also the connecting sleeper down to Madrid. And that waiting for a train to Madrid next morning was going to mean that we missed the start of the writing course. And the Eurostar staff at St Pancras could have more polite and helpful too...
So, ashamed and angry as I am to admit it, we ended up on plane to Malaga next morning, followed by a bus up to Granada. And I promised myself that I will never put myself in that situation again.
Getting around Andalucia by coach and train was a joy, and an illustration of how punctual and comfortable well-run public transport can be. The train system, in particular, was a delight, especially the contrast between the amount of legroom available on Spanish trains compared with the battery-chicken conditions of the vile Virgin Pendolino. Booking coaches from the UK via Alsa, a subsidiary of National Express, was a doddle, and the advance-purchase machines for their tickets in most Spanish coach stations were also easy to use. Renfe, the Spanish train network, was less user-friendly for advance purchases, but helpful advice is available on
The overnight coach from Lisbon to Madrid, booked via Eurolines, was ok and surprisingly comfortable. And the sleeper from Madrid up to Paris, with tickets bought direct from SNCF after RailEurope's website decided to be awkward, was extremely comfortable for short-arsed me, although OA's height was a bit much for the berths. We met a great family from Aberdeen who were doing the through journey from the south of Spain to the north of Scotland in one go, and having done a similar trek between Aberdeen and Italy the previous year were impressively sanguine about it - and gave two fingers to people who claim that distance train travel with kids is impossible. Although obviously it helps when your son is happy to sit and read or actually have conversations with people around him, rather than drive fellow passengers up the wall with nasty noisy bits of technology. Fortunately we'd got a couple of days in Paris on the way home, so there were no nail-biting moments about whether we'd catch our trains (just horror at the continued inadequacy of the facilities and staffing at the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Nord, where the vast queues nearly left OA standing on the platform watching the train vanish England-wards).

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