A Brief Stay in Edinburgh

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I came up to Edinburgh for less than 24 hours the other day to speak at a conference. Initially, I was planning to stay a few days extra afterwards and turn it into a mini-vacation of sorts, but I had a couple of other commitments that same week. I’m definitely planning on coming back soon, however – this city is beautiful and has many things worth exploring.

I stayed overnight in the Adria House hotel. I can’t recommend this place highly enough! Even though I’d booked a single room, when I arrived I found that they’d given me an upgrade to their largest family room. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this room is the size of my apartment. It’s huge, with beautiful furniture and enormous windows. I was greeted by Edward, one of the owners, who was very friendly and gave me a run-down on Edinburgh and the immediate surrounding neighborhood.
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I went for dinner at Cafe Marlayne, a short walk from the hotel on Antigua street. I loved the atmosphere of the cafe – it felt elegant, cozy, and casual at the same time. There were candles at the tables, but also an eclectic mix of furniture and art. The combination made me feel instantly at home while also feeling like it was a special occasion.

For a starter, I had butternut squash risotto with thyme, pine nuts and parmesan and a pesto-rocket salad. The butternut squash was tender and sweet, with the pine nuts providing a nice crunch for contrast. After a long day’s travel, it was warm, comforting and delicious, which was exactly what I needed.

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My main course was also stunning: pan-fried plaice with brown shrimp, samphire, beurre noisette, and saffron rice. The fish was beautifully cooked and melted in my mouth. The brown shrimp (which I’d never had before) were sweet and slightly chewy (in a good way), while the samphire provided a salty kick. The beurre noisette was hauntingly good and I’m sure I’ll be dreaming about it all week.

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Unbelievably, this absolutely stellar meal came to only £13 for both courses. Cafe Marlayne is a rare gem, managing to serve truly excellent food in a lovely atmosphere at affordable prices. If you find yourself in Edinburgh, please go! You won’t regret it.

It’s been awhile…

I’m not entirely sure how this happened, but I’ve somehow neglected this blog for the past two years. Well, that’s not entirely truthful. I know EXACTLY how it happened. As soon as I got back from Porto, I dove straight into summer term. The next few months passed in a total blur (so much work, so little time), then I flew back home for a short summer vacation.

I did type up a few posts, but kept on putting them off until I could add pictures…which never ended up happening. The next year (my last year of grad school) passed in a whirlwind of activity (the dissertation writing process in particular devoured all of my time and energy.

Now that I’ve graduated, I have a little bit more time on my hands. I’m hoping to get back to blogging again – if nothing else, it’s a great way to stay in touch with friends and family when I’m so far away.*

I’ve had the Porto trip blog posts completely written up for simply ages, so I’ll add pictures to them and put them up as soon as possible. I’ll also try and write up some of the more interesting things that have happened in the past couple of years.

*This whole England thing was supposed to last for two years. I ended up liking it here so I stayed. Me-three-years-ago would have been very surprised by this decision, but now it feels totally right.

Porto, Day Five and Six

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Wary of the rain the previous day, I was entirely gratified to see nothing but sun when I poked my head out the door this morning.  Ever the poster child for sun safety, I dashed downstairs to put on some sunscreen.  Not 5 minutes later, I opened the door and was faced with a wall of water.  More rain!

Instead of braving the elements, we decided to have lunch at the house.  Tiago decided to make a something which he called “tomato fish rice” while I stood by and took copious notes so that I could recreate it when I got back to the UK. It was delicious!

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After lunch, we wandered down to the pastry shop Concha d’Ouro where I picked up pastries for my flight home, then I went to buy more ceramics souvenirs.  We took the scenic route through town, wandering over the Bridge D. Luís before heading to Casa Museu Guerra Junqueiro for what was supposed to be a concert of traditional Portuguese music.

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I say “supposed to be” because it was only after we’d been stranded in the front row of an extremely packed concert hall that we discovered we’d been tricked into attending a performance of Portuguese Jesus Christ Superstar.  I’m extremely prone to giggling at inappropriate moments, so I had to spend the next hour biting the inside of my cheek and studiously avoiding looking at Tiago while geriatric men pranced around in loincloths mere inches from my face.  Following the performance, Tiago had some extremely…choice…words to say about the friend who’d told him about the “concert” in the first place (and who had bailed on meeting us there at the last minute).  This was actually as amusing as watching the performance itself, though I made a mental note never to get on Tiago’s bad side, if only to avoid being cursed for the next 7 generations.

To calm down, we went to an amazing little tea shop called Muí where they blend all of their teas by hand.  The owner is absolutely fantastic to talk to and speaks approximately 12 bajillion languages fluently.  So impressed.

For our afternoon snack, we stopped by the tea parlour Rota do Chá for some excellent sandwiches and equally delightful tea.  I highly recommend this place, and it’s worth going for the extensive tea menu alone.

It was my last night in Porto and we decided to stay in and cook something for ourselves.  Dinner was simple, just some roasted cauliflower and pasta with homemade pesto, but it really hit the spot.  We kicked back in front of the TV and watched a few episodes of How I Met Your Mother.  Perfect!

The next day I arose bright and early, then prodded Tiago awake because he’d very kindly agreed to drive me to the airport.  I flew back to England, missing both Porto and Tiago already.

Porto, Day Four

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Today, we ventured further afield to the town of Guimarães, European Capital of Culture 2012.  Due to a late start (ahem, Tiago, Mr.-oh-let’s-totally-wake-up-early-just-kidding-I’m-going-to-ignore-my-alarm-clock), we finally ended up arriving in town around lunchtime.  After a quick lunch, we headed outside to find that the skies had suddenly turned grey.  I’m usually pretty optimistic about the weather, but when the sky started heaving buckets of rain down onto our heads, I turned to Tiago and wailed “It’s RAAAAAAIIINING!”  With a beatific smile, he said “No it’s not!  Those are just drops of water.” 

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Tiago’s post-lunch drink; hot water with lemon peel.

We went to the Convent of Santa Clara…which turned out to be a bank or something.  I think we were both a little confused by that one. After wandering aimlessly around the courtyard, we headed to the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza, then to Guimarães Castle.  For some unknown reason, most likely due to the city being named the European Capital of Culture 2012, the beautiful old castle was decked out in what has to have been some of the worst art I have ever seen in my life.  The most egregious example of this was a gigantic plaster baby with demonic eyes that had been placed in front of the altar of the castle chapel.  I wish I’d thought to take a picture of it, because it was really something else.

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Wandering back into the centre of town, we stopped by the Church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira, then ducked into a pastry shop in order to equip ourselves with the supplies necessary for our journey home (in this case, the pastries known as Jesuits and Glórias).  Pastries in hand, we walked back to the train and rode back to Porto in order to meet with some of Tiago’s high school friends.

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We also found a print shop! I spent three years working in a letterpress workshop, so I love visiting them whenever I find one.

We went to dinner at a little place in Rua do Carmo.  Tiago didn’t actually know the name of it, he and his friends switch between calling it Megadef or Parte o Prato (Break the Plate).  Anyway, whatever it was called, I finally got my fix of bacalhau. Surprisingly (or maybe not, given that they are both salted, preserved bits of fish), it tasted a lot like anchovies.  Yum!

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Porto, Day Three

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We started our day off with a stroll around the Crystal Palace Gardens because, much to Tiago’s delight, the sun had finally made an appearance.  I was amazed to discover that there were peacocks prancing around the gardens and was so entranced by these exotic birds that I spent a not insignificant portion of time strutting around behind them and pretending to be one.  I promise that I’ll grow up someday.  Maybe.

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After exploring the beauty of the gardens, we dropped by the Museu Romântico da Quinta da Macieirinha – Tiago went to school with one of the conservators there, so we went by for a tour (me) and to talk shop (him).

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Next up, lunch!  I asked Tiago where he wanted to go and he said “Oh, I know!  My favorite place – it’s a museum cafe.”  Recalling every single museum cafe I’ve ever had the misfortune to eat in, I politely muttered a non-committal “mmmmm!” and prepared for overpriced, terrible food.  Silly me, I should have remembered that Tiago has EXCELLENT taste and would not lead me astray.

To say that I was blown away by this meal is an understatement.  The cafe at Museu Nacional de Soares dos Reis is pretty darn amazing.  They only offer a few options, but what they do have is delicious, inexpensive, and well plated.  Even better, you can sit outside and admire the beautiful Azulejo in the courtyard while you eat.  We both chose the vegetable crepe, which came with rice pilaf and a salad.  The crepe was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G, most likely due to the presence of vegetables that had been slow-poached in garlic butter, then draped with shavings of cheese.

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After lunch, we walked through the Jardim das Virtudes and alongside the river, then stopped by O melhos bolo de chocolate do mundo (The Best Chocolate Cake in the World – no seriously, the shop is called that!) and sampled what indeed was the best chocolate cake in the world.  Sadly, there are no pictures of that as it was gone in approximately 0.63 seconds.

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We ended with dinner at Tiago’s house – seriously, the best salmon I have ever eaten!  Tiago’s mum said that it had been caught earlier that morning, and you could definitely tell.  The salmon was melt-in-your-mouth tender.  I’m almost afraid to eat salmon ever again after that, as nothing can compare with what I ate that night!

Finally, because this is Porto, we ended dinner with a glass of port.  Laughter and smiles all around!

Porto, Day Two

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After rolling out of bed bright and early (ok, 9:30) and eating some of the tastiest Greek yogurt I’ve ever laid hands on*, we headed out the door.  Tiago again bemoaned the weather, which, to be fair, wasn’t optimal given that the sky was overcast.  In England (where we live for most of the year) that kind of weather is pretty much bog standard, so neither of us were particularly fussed.

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Just outside São Bento Train Station.

We took the bus into the center of town and got off at the São Bento Train Station.  Although we weren’t going to be traveling by train, the station was well worth a visit.  Covered in blue hand-painted ceramic tiles (a style known as Azulejo), it is a beautiful work of art.

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The interior of São Bento Train Station.

After the train station, we wandered down to the Douro river, stopping in at ceramics shop on the way (located in Mouzinho de Albuquerque). Although the day was gray and we were ambushed by the occasional rain shower, the river was still beautiful.  We crossed over the river into Vila Nova de Gaia and Tiago jokingly suggested that the only good thing about living in Gaia is the fact that you can see such a beautiful view of Porto.

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Our main purpose in crossing the river (aside from seeing a panoramic view of Porto, of course), was to tour the port caves.  There are many places to do this – Porto is, after all, famous for port, but in the end we went with the Sandeman caves.  Unbeknownst to me (well, I knew at some point but had since forgotten it), these were the same caves that my sister toured 2 years ago when she visited Porto and she recommended the Sandeman tour highly.  We mainly chose them because the ceramics instructor at our school is a member of the Sandeman family and we wanted to pick up something there for her.

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The Sandeman caves are right next to the river, as are many of the other port company caves.  This is for the simple reason that the port casks are transported down the river from the Douro on boats and so the riverside location is particularly convenient.  Because the caves are right next to the river, they’ve experienced flooding many times over the centuries.  In honor (or perhaps remembrance) of this, the most notable floods are marked both on the outside of the Sandeman building, as well as on the insides of the caves.

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As soon as we walked into the Sandeman caves, we were greeted by the scent of port, which permeates right through the walls of the aging barrels and infuses the air with a heady aroma.  We both breathed in deeply, sighed out with contentment, then looked at each other and burst into giggles.

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We finished our tour with a sampling of two different (and rather generous) samples of port.  Heads reeling, we realised that we should probably eat something fast as neither of us drink very often (ok, basically never) and consequently have the alcohol tolerance of toddlers.

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After a refreshing lunch of soup and octopus (hey, it was yummy!), we headed off to see the sights of Porto, including the Cathedral, Mercado do Bolhão (the open-air market), a fancy chocolate store (Chocolataria Equador), the Central Square of Porto, and, of course, Livraria Lello which is where J. K. Rowling allegedly started writing the first Harry Potter book.  The inside of the bookstore looks like something straight out of Harry Potter, so I would not be at all surprised if that were true. Sadly, no cameras are allowed inside so you’ll just have to content yourself with a photo of the outside and the all-seeing eye of google images.

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Energy flagging, we made a quick stop into Leitaria Quinta do Paço for some yummy eclairs, which we then brought back to Tiago’s and devoured while lounging around on the sofa.

We ended the day with another delicious meal cooked by Tiago’s mum – fried, breaded white fish with rice pilaf and pea soup for starters.

*I think the amazingness of the yogurt had less to do with the maker (Dannon, so nothing special) and more to do with the fact that I’ve never actually had full-fat Greek yogurt before.  I usually only eat the fat-free kind, so the normal version tasted like pure cream.

Porto, Day One

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(I apologize for the complete and utter lack of photos in this post.  I completely forgot to snap any pictures on the first day, barring a rather poor photo of the ocean.  Feel free to blame it on my nonexistent jet lag.)

For my Easter vacation this year, I decided to go visit my friend Tiago in Porto, Portugal.  Tiago grew up in Porto and ever since we met at the beginning of this year, he’s been telling me a). how wonderful the city is and b). that I absolutely needed to visit him there.  At first, it looked like it wasn’t going to work out this year – I already had plans for Christmas and Easter – but at the last minute, my Easter vacation plans suddenly fell through.  About 5 minutes after I found that out, I was knocking on Tiago’s door.  “Sooooooooo…were you serious about visiting Porto?” I asked.  “Umm, yes?  Why?”  “How does next month look?”  Fortunately he was free, so I happily spent the next couple of hours researching and booking plane tickets instead of writing the essay that was due the next day.  (Yes, I managed to finish the essay in time too.)

A mere three weeks later (I wasn’t kidding about the whole last minute thing), I found myself on plane heading from Gatwick to Porto.  One of the awesome things about living in England is that it is comparatively cheap to fly to other parts of Europe.  And, given that I generally consider plane travel to be in its own special circle of hell, I highly appreciate the fact that the plane rides are much, much shorter than if I were flying directly from America.

Beforehand, Tiago advised me to sit on the right hand side of the plane.  This was an excellent suggestion as the plane circled right just before it landed in Porto, treating me to an excellent view of the river and city.

I was greeted at the airport by Tiago and his father, who both instantly apologized for the weather.  I cocked my head doubtfully at the blue skies, sun, and balmy temperature, and proceeded to give them a hard time about their so-called “terrible weather.”  Apparently, the weather is just so awesome in Porto that the mere presence of clouds in the sky is cause for alarm.

After unloading all of my bags at Tiago’s house, we went out for a ramble by the seaside.  We took the scenic route through the Parque da Cidade (City Park) which was massive, green, gorgeous, and conveniently spills directly onto the beach.  We then looped back along the ocean boulevard and went home for an evening snack.  Dinner tends to be served relatively late in Portugal in comparison to America/England, so most locals eat a little something in the late afternoon to tide them over until dinnertime.

One of the most wonderful things about staying with a Portuguese family (as compared to staying in a hotel/hostel/whatever) is that I get to experience family life, and in particular the cultural aspects of dinner and eating that I might not otherwise get if I were dining in a restaurant every night.  I’d never know, for example, that food is often served with both a spoon and a fork from a main serving platter in Portugal – in the US and UK, one big serving spoon usually does the trick.  The spoon and fork are used to grasp whatever is being taken – fish, rice, salad, whatever – and transfer it to each person’s plate.

On the first night, Tiago and I wandered into the kitchen during dinner prep.  Tiago’s mother (who is an excellent cook) was busily working on the evening meal, skillfully breaking down a whole chicken.  We pitched in and made the salad, then helpfully sampled various bits of food that were being proffered in our direction (olive oil bread, some sort of soft, fresh cheese, and a semi-soft cheese).  Dinner was lovely; for starters, we had a pureed pumpkin/potato soup that had a few cooked cabbage leaves thrown in at the end, then chicken, garlic tofu, saffron rice, and salad for the next course.  We finished up with fruit and left over Easter candy (chocolate almonds and an assortment of confections shaped like peas, carrots, doves, and babies that Tiago says are essentially straight up sugar with a liqueur center) for dessert.

The remainder of the evening we spent curled up under a blanket, lazily watching the movie Rio before sloping off to bed around 1-ish.

Father Christmas

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Despite my recent birthday (25?!?!?  How is that even possible?), I’m still a kid at heart.  Having received a tip-off that a certain Mr. S. Claus would be visiting school today, I spent the morning in a state of excitement.  By the time that tea time rolled around, I was giddily bouncing off the walls and yelling “SAAAAAANTA SANTA SANTA SANTA!”  Actually, that might have been the caffeine and sugar talking (I rarely eat the biscuits at tea, but today there was shortbread).

At 11am on the dot, most of the graduate students bolted to the front door, excited about the prospect of Father Christmas (that’s what they call Santa here in England) arriving.  We joined hordes of excited schoolchildren from a local primary school at the entrance of the college.  They were just as giddy and energetic about the whole thing as the supposed adults standing behind them.

And then, he appeared.  The kiddies started jumping up and down and yelling “It’s FATHER CHRISTMAS!” and “Look, he’s got REINDEER!!!!”

Indeed he did.

Unfortunately, Rudolph had a little too much mulled wine on the way there and was arrested for flying under the influence.

What are YOU looking at, buddy?

Santa had to put on his lawyer hat and do some smooth talking to get him out of that one, let me tell you.

After the kids lined up for their photo op with Santa and his reindeer, we went inside for some mulled wine (adults) and neon yellow festive beverages (kids), as well as a bunch of freshly baked mince pies.

The kids then sang carols and Santa handed out presents underneath the Christmas tree.  Pretty adorable, no?

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