Mixing things up one afternoon, we drive out to the Penedes area not far outside of Barcelona as we heard it’s Catalonia’s wine region. In particular, this region is famous for producing cava, Spain’s famous sparkling wine. We learn that 95% of all cava is actually produced here.
We aren’t too sure what to expect, and when we arrive we find a beautiful, sleepy, unassuming little town with a giant chocolate factory (we obviously spend some time here) and a bunch of wineries. The wineries in town look small but established – when walking around, we find that the wine tasting culture of northern California is very different from that in Penedes. There are only a couple other couples we run into also doing some touring and tasting; otherwise, it’s a very quiet afternoon.
There are two highlights of our visit: 1) we find a winery, Vilarnau, outside of town on a hill that we aren’t sure is even open, but once we walk in and start chatting with one of the workers, he keeps encouraging us to taste different wines and even gives us a tour of their wine cave. And 2) we take a tour of one of the wineries in town called Recaredo. We quickly learn that there are multiple levels of caves underground full of wine bottles of different vintages and in different stages of the fermentation process. When we come back out of the cave we find ourselves in an entirely different block of the town. A true a-ha moment comes when we put together that cava means “cave”.
We’re off on another day trip in our rental car. First stop: Girona. We heard good things, but we had no real idea of its history. First, there were the Romans, then the Visigoths, then the Moors, and then finally a Catalonian county starting in the 8th century. One part of the old city that was particularly interesting to us was the old Jewish Quarter. It may be the best-preserved Jewish quarter in all of Europe. A Jewish community had lived there until late 1400’s when the Catholic Monarchs gave Jews the choice to convert or leave. The other highlight of Girona for us is the churro guy – freshly deep-fried churros sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar makes for a wonderfully warm snack on a chilly morning.
Not far from Girona, we continue on to Figueres, birthplace and now resting place of Salvador Dali. There, Dali built a very eccentric museum to house much of his art. In his words: “I want my museum to be a single block, a labyrinth, a great surrealist object. It will be a totally theatrical museum. The people who come to see it will leave with the sensation of having had a theatrical dream.” We may have experienced that sensation, but we definitely left feeling that Dali was a weird, eccentric, egotistical artist. Quote from Lindsey: “this guy’s nuts!”
On a different day, but related because he’s another famous artist who spent some time in Catalonia, we visit the famous Picasso Museum in Barcelona. Along with enjoying one of the most extensive collections of his art anywhere in the world, we also enjoy learning a little more about him through listening to the fictional novel Cooking for Picasso in the car as we drive around Catalonia. The book really paints a picture (pun intended) of how the artist had many mistresses in addition to his wives. He was married twice and had four children by three women, or at least officially. The book may suggest otherwise :).
When the New Year arrives, the tradition is to eat twelve grapes synchronized exactly with the twelve dongs of the church bells. Turns out it’s a lot harder than it sounds and is very funny to take part in! They say you’ll be blessed with good luck the following year.
Taking a step back, we begin the night by exploring the equivalent of Barcelona’s time square where they have a midnight-dropping ball and all. We then venture to a festive tapas place called Paco Meralgo, where they turn the atmosphere into a bit of party come midnight handing out 12 grapes along with a goody bag of silly toys.
After Mdina, a tiny town of 300 people that completely empties every night around 5pm, Valletta feels like a true metropolis (kinda). There are restaurants and bars, shops that stay open late, theaters, and seemingly hordes of people.
Stomachs still full a couple days later from our Christmas dinner, early breakfast, regular breakfast and lunch, we find a small wine bar named Trabuxu serving snacks for tonight’s dinner. The wine is great, the local cheese peppery, and the service accommodating enough for Lindsey to find things to eat that are neither alcoholic nor unpasteurized. We sit outside on a little stoop people watching as we enjoy our light-ish meal.
Our first full day in Valletta is definitely full. We start with a hotel breakfast followed by a wonderfully orienting tour of the old city. The guide helps us continue to piece together many parts of Malta’s history through the different kingdoms that once ruled. But two of the highlights extended beyond just listening to the stories but actually touching and witnessing them.
What better way to touch history than turn the pages of a 400 year book! Lindsey and I both look at each other a couple times before building up the courage to turn one of these ancient pages. One of the books we flip through contains the history of Malta, another was handwritten and has interspersed little drawings. The Valetta Library holds works dating as far back as 1100, but don’t worry, that one was well protected and far out of our hands.
We next get to witness a bit of history as we enter a 5th-generation gilder’s studio. The pride he takes in his work has likely only grown through the generations. He is in the process of making a Maltese clock for his daughter’s recent wedding gift and he explains the process of how the gold is gilded onto the frame. Each smaller-than-one-millimeter thick square of gold is several Euros, and the clock he’s in the middle of building could reach up to 10,000 Euros. He uses all traditional methods including natural glues made from animals. The only new technology that he’s incorporated into his practice is that of air conditioning – this allows him to work year around even during the humid months.
We round out our day of touring by going to an ornate theater in the middle of town where they’re currently performing a very silly rendition of the Little Mermaid. These satirical plays, full of their British humor, are an end-of-year tradition. Otherwise, the theater typically is home to a bit more serious material. That said, it’s wonderful to see all of the locals performing and their families in the audience cheering them on. When surrounded by so many tourists around town, it was wonderful to see this strong local community as well.
Although Valletta does not charm us as much as Mdina did, it did give us an even greater appreciation for the history of the island. Every site we visit from Fort St. Angelo to St. John’s Cathedral which houses the largest Caravaggio to the Barrakka Gardens all reinforce that so much has happened on such a small piece of land.
Leading up to and throughout our visit, I’ve been enjoying The Sword and the Scimitar, a book by David Ball that captures through a tale of historical fiction the period when the Order of the Knights of St. John ruled on the island. Many of the names that appear in the book are also said aloud by our tour guide and in many of the museums we walk through. Although at times a little violent, the book was a very entertaining way to learn a piece of history of this special island. And what better way to enjoy some of this book than with a cup of joe from our favorite coffee shop Lot Sixty One Coffee Roasters, which I think we averaged two visits per day.
One of the many reasons that Malta became a destination for us this winter is how they celebrate the holidays. Many Christmas traditions in Malta happen outside the home. Not only does everyone attend a Midnight Christmas Mass, but many then follow it up with an early breakfast at a local restaurant. Christmas lunch is then also frequently enjoyed out. We pass by many a restaurant full of tables reorganized to accommodate large families cheerfully clinking glasses.
Not to be outdone by the Maltese, after a Christmas Eve feast at our Xara Palace Hotel, we pop into three Masses on Christmas Eve, most of which are not in English so we soak up the atmosphere more than the sermons. The last Mass we enter right at the end to admire another beautifully decorated church, and we time it just perfectly to be handed a honey ring (a traditional Maltese pastry). A couple of the locals spot us and give us the thumbs up.
After Mass, we haven’t quite worked up another appetite, but it’s time for Early Christmas breakfast. This is actually a thing in Malta. We enjoy orange juice, tea, mulled wine, and a full buffet breakfast around 2am in the morning surrounded by families young and old. And finally, because we’re still not fully stuffed, Christmas lunch the following day has a very similar appeal. Lots of families feasting out!
Along with the specific Christmas Eve and Christmas Day traditions, Malta and Gozo are fully decorated for the occasion. The streets are lit up, Christmas trees a plenty, and cribs with manger scenes. On the nearby island of Gozo, we even swing through a real-life Bethlehem complete with animals, bakers, a well, boat rides, and a manger scene with a baby Jesus. Malta knows how to do Christmas.
Khwai was off to an adventurous start. Little did we know that our trip here would both begin and end with elephants. But first, the time in-between.
Banda was our fearless guide, leading game drives and always conscious to give Andrew the best lighting. He’s a photographer too, and had captured some unbelievable moments in the bush. When he got wind of a rare animal nearby on the walky talky, he’d speed down the bumpy sand roads so fast it felt like we were riding a bull. We made a game of ducking before the branches whipped our faces.
One afternoon we forewent the game drive to take a relaxing trip down the delta on a mokoro. We sank deep into the water on our boat as our guide stood behind, pushing us forward. It was a welcome respite from the adrenaline-inducing game drives. When a light rain started to fall, we put our cameras into plastic bags. Within 30-seconds, the sky opened and we were drenched, struggling to see through the rain. We were laughing hysterically as our guide tried to continue the ride as thunder roared overhead. As we were rushing back, Banda was shooing hippos away from heading directly toward us with an extra mokoro boat. Our guide nearly jumped out of the boat when a final bolt of lightning came down within a mile of us, hitting a nearby car. The rain stopped just long enough for us to have sunset drinks in the park before opening the sky again.
On our last night, the staff set the most special lantern lit dinner right outside our camp. We’d made friends with the other adventurers and spent the night laughing and sharing photos. Andrew and I had successfully convinced them we’d seen a leopard kill a monkey using an old video from Banda when we heard something in the bush. We shined a light into the distance to find one giant elephant about 100 yards from us, munching on a tree. He headed toward us, then another one, and later a hippo. There we were, dining under the stars, sharing the space peacefully with massive animals also trying to get their fill.
In our tent that night, you could see the elephant passing by before we went to sleep.
We are generally strong hikers, or so we like to think, but on this trek we held a consistent spot in the back of the pack. The destination was the journey, and we were in no rush to leave the trail behind us. We were on a two-day hike through the Llanganates National Park, dressed in wellies with the imminent threat of rain that never came.
One guide led the way, the other tailed. Andrew, in his persistent habit to make fast friends everywhere he goes, began conversing with Juan Carlo. Juan Carlo steadied every flower I spotted for Andrew to photograph on his iPhone. He pulled fruits and plants from the ground to share with us – mint, gooseberries, babaco. We laughed as we compared the $.10 price of an avocado in Ecuador to the $2.00 price of an avocado in California. You could almost see the pain on Juan Carlo’s face when we told him an avocado may be closer to $4.00 on the East Coast, so we didn’t even broach the subject of avocado toast. Our favorites were the mora berries. They grew in abundance, naturally and farmed, and were shipped across Ecuador to make jugo naturales and vino.
Juan Carlo saw his family friend on the path, an older gentleman who owned a farm large enough to house fruit and livestock. Arnaldo was carrying a machete, and excitedly abided by Andrew’s request to look strong for a photo.
Before sunset we arrived at our camp, a covered flat in the middle of the park where our guides had squeezed together ten tents. The land was owned by a family who farmed trout, so as promised, we fished for our dinner in a pond containing hundreds of trucha. The family got to work, skinning and deboning to create an Ecuadorian feast for the group of us. We ended the night by dipping marshmallows in moonshine to watch them be engulfed by flames over the hot blaze of our campfire, with the rain that had held off pouring onto the tin roofs.
One of the true highlights of this trip are its meals.And not only because the food, the wine, and the atmosphere of so many of them are beyond special.Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all times that Lindsey and I get to completely slow down, be together, and just talk about our honeymoon, our wedding, and our future plans.I’ll try to capture our favorite spots:
Alma by Henrique Sa Pessoa – the small tastes at the start of the meal might have been my favorite, but the sardine and suckling piglet still make my mouth water.We highly recommend this small Lisbon restaurant.
O Paparico in Porto – knocking on a door to enter into a restaurant that brought us back in time, it almost doesn’t matter how good the food is because the experience starts off so well. The food doesn’t disappoint either.A couple favorites from here are the terrine and the clams in a pork sauce.
Pedro Lemos – We get the corner table so that we can watch as the restaurant fills up because our 8:30pm reservation is a little on the early side.The standout dish from PL is the seared tuna with wasabi pearl onions.
DOC by Chef Rui Paula – Sitting right along the Douro river, we split several apps and mains, and this may be the best octopus we’ve ever tasted.
Six Senses – Right at our hotel in the Douro Valley, we have one of the best lamb shoulders we’ve ever had (not sure I’ve ever had one before).The view isn’t bad either.
Trattoria alla Madonna – We hear this place hasn’t changed in the last 50 years, and decide to try it out on our first night in Venice.The fish risotto, branzino, and tiramisu can’t be missed!
Osteria Acquastanca – A surprise hole-in-the-wall on the island of Murano.It was quiet, cool, and the food, especially the gnocchi, is homemade and great.
Antiche Carampane – Super small and Italian and away from the tourists of Venice, this spot had some delicious squid ink tagliatelle followed by some bite-sized soft shell crab cooked perfectly.
Al Covo – A beautifully done Americanized restaurant in Venice.The excellent service was the most familiar to us, and the food was great with our favorite being a meat rigatoni dish.
With the backdrop of the Tour de France happening in a fellow European nation not too far away, we spend our first morning in the Douro cycling through the vineyards.Moving between vines, we appreciate that not all wine regions are the same.The terraced Douro valley is particularly steep and manual.The only way to strip the vines of their grapes is by hand – no machine can traverse these terraces.We learn stories of people carrying incredibly heavy baskets up and down these hills.We first imagine a peaceful ride through the area, but we soon learn that the slopes and the loose gravel make this morning more of an adventure and less of a stroll.Luckily, the views have us stopping often to rest and take photos.
We seek adventure; however, we don’t always appreciate how much adventure we’re getting ourselves into.We sign up for a three-quarter day canyoning trip near the Douro.We’re picked up from the hotel after breakfast and driven through much of the countryside of Portugal.We arrive at the side of the river and change into our wetsuits, harnesses and helmets, which we believe is more for form than function.However, after only a couple meters into our excursion, we jump off a small cliff into the water.Given my healthy fear of heights, the adrenaline high begins here and doesn’t stop until we arrive back at our car four hours later.In-between, we repel down waterfalls, climb up waterfalls, scramble around rocks, cliff jump into river pools, and use moss-covered rocks as slides.Not for the faint of heart.
As our reward, our guide brings with him a homemade, traditional Portuguese picnic with corn bread, cheese, sausage, and homemade wine, port and grappa.Once we relax, we realize that we are very hungry, and truly enjoy our late afternoon picnic.