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Archive for August, 2009

Am awash in notes and photos from Dubrovnik, Zagreb and Prague, but it turns out my chica and fellow food dork kopibren is dropping into Berlin at month’s end. So, wurst things wurst…

Check in, chuck your bags, and charge over to the Curry 36 stand in Western Kreuszberg for potentially the best of the (curry)wurst in town — grilled sausages sliced and drenched in ketchup and mayo and sprinkled with a mild chili powder. Death by drowning in this dip would not be a dishonourable one, methinks.

1 sausage with sauce cost €1.50 and 2 sausages with fries (below) cost less than €5.

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But be sure to show up hungry (or like me, greedy), or with friends, so that you can ALSO partake of Mustafas kebabs just a few steps away from Curry 36. The kebab stand will be hard to miss. The painted cable box greets you as you exit Mehringdamm station, as does the largest barrel of grilling kebab meat I have ever seen. The kebab itself will be hard to fit in your mouth, stuffed as it is with salad, roast veggies and feta. Again, this cost less than €5.

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Given their great bite-for-buck, I was tempted to simply spend all our meals in Berlin cruising wurst and kebab stands in each neighbourhood. Temptation came in all sorts of contraptions! E.g., a strap-on hot dog stand, and another fashioned from a converted wheelchair. Berlin’s creativity at its wurst.

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IMG 1026But that kind of kebab-crawl would likely require a lot more late-night clubbing than we had time or money more. So in our short stay we sampled only Tresor, a converted power station basement down the street from Hotel A&O Mitte where we were staying. The house music even at 4am wasn’t as hardcore as the uber-bunker setting (Guess I should’ve gotten off my ass and headed to Panorama, a recommendation from my music and nightlife expert pal Mogs).

I was quite amused by Tresor’s doorbitch, though. And I quote: “Your sandals are a problem for the club…if you fall down the stairs it’s your problem”.

We’re not in London Zone 1 anymore, Toto.

Also tempting was Sage Club (down the street from Tresor), but Babs and I had dresscode problems there as well. Namely, we didn’t have any leather or PVC. So we boogied outside on the street corner where the music was pumping out of a building vent… with kebabs of course.

We took in a more genteel side of the city the next evening. Fellas was a cute bistro in the recently posh Prenzlauer Berg, which served giant and well made salads along with other classic continental offerings.

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On a walking tour of “lofts-for sale” buildings in the neighbourhood after dinner, we chanced upon the very charming Lorberth cafe, which offered a range of organic desserts, coffees and teas (the latter served in large bowls). We settled on the delectable and none-too-sweet “old fashioned German blueberry cake”. I was quite taken with their shabby-chic lampshade — a paper bag stamped with their logo and placed over a candle in a glass.

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Wall to Wall Sightseeing

I realised only afterwards that the inedible part of my tour of Berlin centred around a “wall” theme.

2009 being the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Alexanderplatz had a magnificent exhibition on the history of the wall, the long-running opposition against it and the events leading up to its eventual fall.

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At both the Jewish Museum and the Holocaust Memorial, the walls of the structure housed exhibits but also were exhibits in their own right.

As Babs and I wandered around the forest of concrete blocks at the Holocaust Memorial (think an abstract representation of a cemetary) for example, we watched this kid below scamper back and forth across the block-tops. He’d cross our path from above every so often. A minute or 2 later an angry security guard would chase from behind from the ground below.

A few members of another group would race ahead of their friends, duck behind a block, and turn on them as they approached and “gun them down” like one of those 1st-person shoot-em-up games.

Curious. Chilling. Maybe too telling.

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For my Cold-War-spy-novel fan Dad, I went to pay my respects at Checkpoint Charlie, the point of transit between the old West and East Berlin for many an emissary of espionage. The only walls here now are the ones going up on vast construction sites. The reconconstruction of the checkpoint itself looked sadly a tad kitschy — the 2nd photo below is more telling of how history played out.

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Most of what is left of the Berlin Wall itself is now better known as the East Side Gallery, a series of murals along the river Spree, now dotted with cafes, restaurants, and river tourboats. Various artists — some new and some returning from their original murals right after 1989 — are being commissioned to repaint sections of the wall.

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There are tons of walking and biking tours you can do in Berlin, depending on your niche interest, be it history, pub-crawling or even exploring underground tunnel systems. We signed up for the Alternative Berlin walking tour, and got a fabulous 5-hour introduction to the city’s best known street artists and popular street culture hangouts. The tour meets under the TV tower at Alexanderplatz at 11am and 1pm daily, and takes tips rather than charges a fee.

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Above: Tacheles (meaning Straight Talk in Yiddish), the landmark artist squatter colony, is worth visiting as soon as possible, as it’s currently fighting an eviction notice from building owner Fundus, an investment fund that’s keen to build luxury apartments on the site (Related news story here). Right now, goodness knows why, really. As it is, Berlin is a city of ~4 million people but the city has space and infrastructure for 8 million. And there’s that little detail of global financing still being in the toilet. Anyway, those among you who feel strongly can sign a petition against the eviction notice onsite.

Overall, I can’t believe that it took me this long to get Berlin on my radar screen (evidence that I was never built to be one of the cool kids, really). So much history, so much new energy, and possibly most importantly, just so much space for all of it to keep growing without falling all over each other.

But to those who haven’t been or who have been long missing: Go now. Go soon. Because, really, new walls are coming up. And eventually the time will come, when they can be accessed only via checkbook charlie.

Curry 36 (and Mustafas kebabs)
Mehringdamm 36
10961 Kreuzberg, Berlin, Germany
+49 30 2517368

Fellas
Stargarder Straße 3
10437 Prenzlauer Berg
Berlin, Germany
+49 030 46796314

Lorberth
Pappelallee 77,
10437 Prenzlauer Berg
Berlin, Germany
+49 30 26349330

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A few of my favourite fellow food dorks and I recently started an annual summer tradition I like to call “Melfi Mayhem”. Using our friend Melf’s birthday as a launchpad, we’d pick an idyllic location to eat, drink and be very very merry. The inaugural party in 2008 was on The Almalfi Coast in Italy, and this year we pounded the pintxos bars in San Sebastian in the north-east corner of Spain. We may have to take a meaty meander to Buenos Aires next year, but I have officially submitted Dubrovnik as a location candidate for 2011.

The pitch: Sapphire blue waters for swimming (still with various types of fish to keep you company no less, so go while you can), vermillion sunsets, an on-the-ball but chilled out service culture, and quite the formidable edible Adriatic aquarium, at reasonable prices.

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Here are 3 fine fishy finds from the recce trip.
Konoba Lokanda Peskarija

This was a great first stop in Dubrovnik, thanks to the advice of our fabulous hostess at Rooms Olga. Located at the old fish market harbour, Konoba Lokanda Peskarija won us over with big pots of fresh local product at fair prices. Below, I play peekaboo with mussels while Babs parses out the risotto. The style of the risotto is more reminiscent of Portugal than Italian risotto or Spanish paella. Apparently the risotto ala terroir is the squid ink kind; I didn’t order it only because I find the stuff really addictive and could end up eating it at every meal for our remaining 4 days (like I did on previous occasions in Barcelona and Venice).

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Orsan

You can dine at the water’s edge (literally) at Orsan, located at Dubrovnik’s local yacht club, another recommendation from the owners of Rooms Olga. The octopus salad was beautifully crunchy, unlike the soggy and slightly powdery renditions in too many London locations. After hemming and hawing over mains, Babs and I embraced our indecision and got the seafood platter, with roasted squid, 2 kinds of fish and mussels. Oh for the days of a yuppy budget. Ah well. Sandwiches and fruit for lunch tomorrow it is, then.

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Restaurant Lindo

Between getting a very late start and then getting off at the wrong bus stop — which meant walking for another 30 minutes slightly uphill in the hot and muggy afternoon heat — we got to Restaurant Lindo at the fairly awkward hour of 3.30pm for lunch. Their hospitality was as old school as their Croatian menu, thankfully.

The fish soup was simple but strong, and Babs is keen to replicate their home-made bread. Very unfortunately because we were between meal shifts I didn’t get to try their slow roast meats (kept in a heavy iron pot and covered in hot ash on an open fire) as those need to be ordered in advance, but I was sufficiently placated by the house-special salad of tomatoes (at the height of their season in town judging by everyone’s garden patches), cucumbers, onion, shrimp and a light yoghurt dressing. Think Indian raita pimped up with shrimp. I’ll need to try making this when I have kitchen access again.

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The waiter offers to fillet our grilled scorpion fish for us. We can’t shoo him away fast enough. On the right is swiss chard cooked with potato, a popular local stodge-&-greens-in-one side dish.

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After lunch, a little jaunt in a laser. I sit up front, clinging to the mast like Odysseus before sailing into siren-land. We scheme about coming back here sooner rather than later. Next time, up and around the Dalmation islands. With a bigger boat. And friends.

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Konoba Lokanda Peskarija
Gorica Sv. Vlaha 77
20000 Dubrovnik, Croatia
+385 20 324747

(Couldn’t get Gmap to pintpoint well, but this is easy to find. Just ask locals for the old fishmarket harbour, where the tour boats to the islands come and go)
Orsan
Ivana Zajca 2 (at the yacht club)
20000 Dubrovnik, Croatia
+385 20 435 933
Restaurant Lindo
Iva Dulcica 39, Babin Kuk
20000 Dubrovnik, Croatia
+385 20 448 351

(Follow directions to the President hotel resort. The restaurant is part of the accompanying low-rise retail complex)

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A Bari Delightful Day

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Maybe it’s true that everything’s better if you have no expectations. Or maybe we were so stressed out by Rome that the return to the charm of a less built up part of Italy was especially keenly felt. In any case, the 15 or so hours spent in the Adriatic port town of Bari — our transit point between an overnight train from Rome and an overnight ferry to Dubrovnik — were quite delightful.

Not that I could claim to know it beforehand, but Bari is the capital of the Puglia region and is the 2nd largest city after Naples in Southern Italy. In addition to fishing and trade, the city seems to thrive on a large grid of swank shopping boulevards.

Historically known as the exit doors of Italy where locals and visitors board boats for Greece and Croatia (as we did), the local government has been working hard to promote Bari as a destination in itself. Each September, for example, the city hosts the massive Fiera del Levante trade and industry fair. My ever-hip friend Goz also sent an alert about the avant garde Fame art festival in Grottaglie — an hour southeast of Bari — opening in mid September this year (2009).

With much less ambition and agenda, we had breakfast at 8am at a cafe near the train station, and watched with bleary eyes the locals coming and going as they grabbed coffee and pastries on their way to work.

After, we decided to walk along the coastline in a bid to recce the port. Others also soaking in the morning light included clumps of heroically pot-bellied old men (talking and gesticulating at each other in that classically dramatic Italian fashion), and locals hunting among the sea-wall rocks for little fish and crabs. The man on the right proudly showed me his catch.

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Babs joins in on some crab-hunting action with his camera.

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I’m not a morning person, but if there’s one thing I do like about having time to kill in the early hours of the day, it’s checking out and dawdling at local markets, like the one at the entrance of Bari Vecchia, Bari’s medieval old town.

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Right across from the market we chanced upon Osteria Con Cucina, a subterranean dining room where we had a scrumptious 4-course lunch and coffee. There was no menu — the owner just listed a few options for the primi and secondi courses. And there was no option to have only 1 course, as some tourists a few tables away tried to do. Each meal, no matter what you picked, came to €20 per person. This is more like the Italy I know and love!

Even more entertaining was sneaking glances at the big black suited Italian dude at the table next to us, reading the sports pages of the local paper. He scarfed down a platter of raw mussels, then a large plate of seafood linguine. Evidently he had access to a special menu, perhaps one reserved for non-tourists, or regulars, or members of the family, or members of the other family.

After Mr Big Black Suit was done he strode into the kitchen to chat with the chef, then to the bar to chat with the owner (I craned my neck but couldn’t see round the pillar to check if he paid like everyone else) before leaving.

Ah well. Back to lunch.

Antipasti: Toasted bread rubbed with olive oil and tomato, with rocket and new potatoes; Bits of ham, olives and 2 types of cheese.

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Primi: Bari’s most famous dish (and rightly so), riso, patate e cozze (rice, potatoes and mussels) with everything cooked (baked?) in a briny stock. I’ll need to try and make this sometime. Below: A very well made pasta with seafood, with clams, mussels, shrimp and squid.

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Secondi: Roasted octopus, entirely intact. The waiter chuckled at how gleeful I was looking.

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Dolci: Chilled watermelon — a godsend for a scorching summer day.

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The rest of the day was spent reading on park benches, walking around the town’s old castles and churches (Wikipedia provides a good list with descriptions in its “Main Sights” section), searching in vain for an internet cafe, and even setting off on an eventually unsuccessful expedition to use the showers at the municipal swimming pool.

Eventually it came time to board our overnight ferry to Dubrovnik, where we again bought deck seats instead of bunks.

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We settled in for the night on a couple of wooden benches on the outdoor deck under the stars, using our daypacks as pillows. We were sweaty and sticky, on the 2nd night in a row sleeping on the move. Usually I’d be in a slightly psychotic state by now, but I was still floating on the memory of a very delicious lunch.

It would seem that a little well-cooked pulpo can go a bari long way.

Osteria con Cucina
Strada Vallisa, 23
Bari, Italy

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Prologue: The iconic symbol of the birth of Rome involves feeding — mythological founders Romulus and Remus were raised by wolves, literally. Romulus later kills his twin brother to consolidate his dominion over the city.

Just before we left Andalucia, we bought a tin of sardines, a tin of scallops and a tin of razor clams. They were to be opened during emergenices only.

We opened the first tin in Rome.

We were placed in a B&B room near Rome Termini train station, different from the one we booked. This one had a bathroom you could barely turn around in, and a giant hole in the wall where the A/C vent was supposed to be. Cue hot air and noise from the street all night.

The only things we could see available for the catered breakfast were packets of croissants, which had a 2011 expiry date. I really don’t want to know what the pastry was inundated with to give that kind of shelf life.

We knew Rome was going to be expensive, but was this really all that €50 a night was going to get us?

Perhaps not.

The next morning, the Chinese lady at front desk, upon realising that I spoke Mandarin (she had no English and I had no Italian) started ranting about how our inkeeper was “bullying” us. Apparently our original room had a damaged door — which by this morning had been fixed — so we should really get on the innkeeper’s case and demand to be moved to our original room, instead of putting up with the tiny room that her B&B didn’t even deign to rent out, but rather used only for staff to rest in during the day.

And so, in the heart of the Roman empire, counsel from the Chinese empire got us into the room we originally booked. Which, as it turns out, sleeps 3 people more than comfortably, and a kitchen full of toast, sausages, cheese, preserves and drinks for breakfast.

This happening upon our arrival in Rome sadly soured my view of the eternal city for our remaining time there. I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that there was always a little something that the Romans were holding out on us. A little more on the plate. A little more information. Heck, in Julius Caesar’s case, a little dagger behind the cloak.

In the case of Trattoria Da Gino, a well known establishment next to the Parlianment Building frequented by politicians and journalists, it was the the minestrone I actually ordered (ie, with pasta, rather than rice). Otherwise, the lamb and osso bucco were decent bite-for-buck.

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And, taking the cake, the waiter at L’Angoletto di Musei a few streets from the Vatican didn’t bother to hint at what I was getting when I ordered “Angelo’s special pasta”. Ok, so Babs and I laughed ourselves silly once I got past the initial shock. But it goes to show.

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What probably saved my blood from boiling over (figuratively and literally, given the sweltering 35 deg C afternoon heat) was Rome’s gelaterias. San Crispino is the hailed by the mainstream media as the Don of the genre in town, but my favourite (and the only real rave I have for Rome in this post) was Gelateria del Teatro, a tiny but rocketing up-and-comer with a mind-blowing watermelon granita. That unmistakeable chilled-ripe-watermelon scent of chlorophyll with a just a tinge of nectar is what I imagine rain in heaven will smell like. Stefano and Silvia, the husband-and-wife team that run the joint, use only natural and seasonal ingredients, sometimes hauled in by Stefano himself from the market on bicycle. All gelato is made in small batches onsite, and you won’t get any hassle if you poke your head in the back to see what’s in progress.

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Above: Babs and I both go for grapefruit sorbet at San Crispino, I balance it out with melon while Babs tarts it up further with raspberry; A cup of watermelon heaven from Gelateria del Teatro

Right now, that watermelon granita might the only reason I would go back to Rome. Otherwise, it just felt like the city was using its ancient and religious sites to milk visitors, without much ongoing investment into striving to provide value for money or excellence in hospitality. Resting on its laurels, as it were.

Trattoria Da Gino
Vicolo Rosini 4
Rome 00186, Italy
+39 06 6873434

L’Angoletto ai Musei
Via Leone IV, 2A
Rome 00192, Italy
+39 06 39723187

Il Gelato de San Crispino
Via Panetteria 42
Rome Italy

Gelateria del Teatro
Via di San Simone 70
Rome 00186, Italy
+39 06 45474880

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In a bid to minimise the number of flights taken on this sabbatical, Babs and I crossed the Mediterranean from Barcelona to Civitavecchia (the port of Rome) by taking a 20-hour Grimaldi lines ferry, which takes pedestrians, passenger cars and campers, and cargo trucks.

To economise we booked €55 deck seats instead of > €100 bunks, and they were fortunately comfortable enough for a decent sleep (picture business class seats on a mediocre airline). Savvier (but heavier laden) backpackers simply found free corners in the indoor deck, or curled up on the floor under their seats, and crawled into their sleeping bags padded by roll-up foam mats.

There was even a big-screen TV at the front of the room and I spent a very entranced hour watching CSI dubbed in Italian.

During the daylight hours, Babs and I settled into one of the cushy booths in the large bar/lounge where I did a lot of daydreaming, reading, writing and even napping to pass the time.

All in all, a very pleasant way to travel slowly, but a word of advice to those who are tight on budget but big on food: Drop by La Boqueria or Mercat Barceloneta and pack a picnic before getting on board, to avoid mediocre food priced for a captive audience.

Bye bye Barca. I miss you already.

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The ever irresistable Babs makes a new friend — a businessman making deliveries in Rome and Sardinia (we didn’t dare to ask what). In a mish mash of English, Spanish and French, we learn from him that Sardinia (which we wanted to go to but alas didn’t) was going to be as expensive as Rome anyway. Not to mention there were ongoing bushfires at the time.

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We eventually reach Civitavecchia at dusk, but still need to find the train station to catch a 90-minute connecting train to central Rome. Babs — not impressed with the organisation of the free port buses — turns on his internal “Babbinav” radar and rockets off on foot.

I plod along behind with backpack and daypack, and watch 3 port buses pass us by. Ah well. Might as well make the best of it and take in the sights of the Roman port along the way.

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A local fisherman — with ALL his goods on display — is as amused at the sight of me as I am of him.

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Just wanted to share a few of my favourite shots from our WWOOF host Catherine’s birthday bash during our last weekend in Orgiva, Spain.

The bandstand amid olive trees at night

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The band, fronting banners borrowed from a friend who designs and exhibits them for WOMAD festivals

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The DJs

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The bar on the back porch — manned in shifts by a series of guests, with the Sierra Nevada as backdrop

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“The beach” – sun loungers brought by UK friends set by the finca’s alberca (water catchment pool and natural swimming pool); shade assembled mostly by Babs, using only poles and string

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The guests

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And of course, the hosts. Happy birthday Catherine. Definitely a summer and a party to remember.

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