The Road to Badajoz...

There were always corners of Spain, far-flung places with historical and political significance, that you never seemed to quite get to. Badajoz was one of those places. A provincial capital of 150,000 people, a legendary border town near Portugal where battles and skirmishes raged between French, Spaniards, Portuguese and the British, and a city that I was always told wasn’t worth visiting. So more my desire to go then. With me it was never a direct route. In this country gems were always scattered along any route.

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Northeast Snapshots #6

La Rioja is almost more of a viticultural concept, an alcoholic sliver of history, than simply a mere region; the smallest of Spain’s 17. Much like Bordeaux, Napa Valley, Chianti, the word Rioja precedes the place itself and instead implants in the mind an idea of wine, a clear image of bottles of red, usually Tempranillo. But then the images fades and we are once again just left with the words La and Rioja.

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Northeast Snapshots #4

73km from San Sebastián - 52km from Vitoria - 64km from Bilbao.

Oñati, a Basque Toledo, or so it was described, is the monumental ancient heart that beats at the centre of the País Vasco. A diminutive town of little over 11,000 inhabitants, the ‘place of many hills’ is clothed in honey-stone and ecclesiastical heritage. You can cross the town in only 15mins but it feels like a slice of grandiose Salamanca has been stolen from Castile and deposited, hidden and secret, in a cleft of nature surrounded on all sides by green peaks.

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Sherry days in Jerez.

The word ‘sherry’ conjures up in the mind a menagerie of wrongs. It is usually thought of as a sickly sweet dessert wine that grandma drinks at Christmas; pouring a little dram out of the bottle of Harveys Bristol Cream that has been sitting there for years, the alcohol all evaporated off and with sugar crystals sticking the cap on. This is not the sherry that confronts the visitor in Spain. 

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{Rotten Sharks}

I dimly remember, quite some years back during an online video binge where I watched clips of young Americans trying out foreign sweets and objectively stupid people try ‘the world’s hottest peppers’, stumbling upon a video of ‘disgusting foods’ or some such theme. One part had two grown men eating hákarl, after sniffing it with scrunched noses and various ‘Oh, God!’ exclamations. They retched and aimed to spit it out. If you go to YouTube and type in ‘eating hákarl’ or ‘eating rotten shark’ there are pages and pages of clips, mostly homemade, mostly loud young Americans, eating and overreacting to this Icelandic delicacy. There is indeed even one clip involving Gordon Ramsay retching at it on his own show, and even Andrew Zimmern went to shoot an episode of his Bizarre Foods series there and said ‘That’s hardcore. That’s serious food. You don’t want to mess with that. That’s not for beginners.’ 

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Jules Verne and the Dead Berserkers

Descend, bold traveller, into the crater of the jökull of Snæfell, which the shadow of Scartaris touches before the Kalends of July, and you will attain the centre of the earth.

The time had come to leave the well-heeled and hip confines of the capital ‘city’, pick up my soon-to-be-beleaguered hire car and head out into the countryside. The aim for the first day, the first opportunity for me to unleash myself into the wild, was the Cornwall-shaped peninsula of Snæfellsness. 

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A Food Walk Around Reykjavík

How do you get to know a place; get to know a city? You can read about it in a book or peruse the pages of Wikipedia. You can arm yourself with context. Hit the sights: stroll around the key monuments and spend time in the museums. If you go to Paris you just must go to the Louvre. But is Paris only hewn from the art of foreign and long-dead artists? No; it’s also a big confusing and sprawling mass of coffee shops, absinthe bars, high-end restaurants, chummy Brasseries and fragrant pastry shops. I learned to tolerate and even like Paris through its food. I fell in love with Spain through my belly. Portugal clung close to my heart for its multicoloured buildings as well as its good cheap wine and wonderful fish and custard tarts. Innocuous little Belgium warmed itself to me for its fine beer and Hamburg too became a personal fan favourite thanks to its pickled herrings and curried sausages. So, despite not knowing what to expect - for Iceland is no top draw on the list of foodie countries - I would try to know Reykjavik via my gut.

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Northeast Snapshots #3

On a sunny morning, warmer than it should be in a place so green and wet, Bilbao is magnificent. Curling out around the prim and taught little cathedral, no higher than the three-story apartment buildings, the old town bustles with weekenders. Unlike the homogenous white-washed villages of the southern end of the country, the northern regions adopt individuality. Each building, stuck to the one before it and clinging to the one after it, has its own design and colour scheme. Covered balconies called galerias stick out in reds, blacks, maroons, sapphire blues, counter-coloured against pastel walls; peaches, pinks, vermillion, burnt honey. 

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Northeast Snapshots #2

Soria was a sunny and contented little place. A regional capital that didn’t act like one. It has the population of a small town and the countenance to go with it. As was so often the case in Spain, as soon as you left the big few cities - Madrid, Barcelona, Malaga, Valencia, Bilbao, Sevilla - everything sort of fell away and collapsed gracefully into a world of provinciality. 

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Feasting in Bulgaria’s Thracian Lowlands!

Bulgaria is not a name that conjures up the idea of European gastronomy. One leaves that to France, Spain, Greece, Turkey. The Balkans alway brought to mind a people between Slavic and gypsy and Mediterranean. An area of wars and power struggles; from the Ottomans to the struggles in Kosovo. An area where there used to be a place called Yugoslavia. The last thing on anyone’s mind was ‘oh, but the food!’.

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Gobbling up Austria #2

Vienna was always a place that sounded classy. A place that sounded elegant; suited and booted. A city of waltzes and coffee shops, yet also a city of sausage and schnitzel. But it was also one of those cities that lacked a firm trademark image or look. For most people when you say London, Paris, Moscow, New York they already know it. You say Melbourne, Tokyo, Madrid and people know the names but not the visuals. That was Vienna to me.

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Gobbling up Austria #1

Austria… What did that word conjure up? A small topography-laden blip of a once great empire? A poor man’s Bavaria? A county of bonkers hikers attacking the Alps in shorts and sturdy boots filled with fat socks? In truth Austria was one of those places I definitely knew without knowing.

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Banqueting around Bavaria!

Munich’s reputation and fame, or infamy, preceded it. This was a city, a big one, whose image was one of drunken debauchery. The capital of Bavaria: a land of huge glasses of beer, busty blonde women in dirndls handing out baked pretzels and plates and platters loaded up with sausages and slabs of indiscriminate pork meat with a side helping of sauerkraut and spicy German mustard. Of course, this was a stereotype, though, like the Cotswolds in the UK or Andalucía in Spain; one where it existed for real. 

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