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Monday, June 30

coastal Portugal

After Porto & Lisbon, we were ready for the coastal towns. Driving towards Obidos we had our first sight of the Atlantic in the town of Ericeria. We stopped to enjoy the view and buy Pao com Chorizo (ciabatta filled with Chorizo) from a food cart. The lady doesn’t speak English so pointing and ordering was best. The best way to describe it is Portuguese hot pocket, freshly made and warm out of the oven.

We proceeded to the convent in Obidos. The host had planned a wonderful surprise with bubbly wine. The convent is located in the old town, inside the walls and has many rooms. Our bedroom was spacious with a sitting area and two full baths, this room is ideal for small families.
Obidos is a walled in village with beautiful homes and shops. One of the neat shops was a market that sells vegetables and fruits and books. There are also many souvenir shops.

Our host recommended 1st December (yes that’s the name) for a meal. Minutes away from the convent, we arrived promptly at 8. Upon the server’s suggestion the husband ordered homemade sausage with rice and I ordered the legume soup. The soup was made of dried green peas, cooked in onions, carrots and other flavorings, blended and served with pasta. Although it had potential to be mouth-watering, it wasn’t. The homemade sausage was of ground chicken in a casing, deep fried and scrumptious. The batter attributed to the crispy exterior and the meat was cooked nicely. The rice was simply seasoned with salt and a good pairing for the sausage.

We were traveling to nearby monasteries and church for the days. Alcobaça is a monastery and church in one and draws the tourists for its exemplified gothic design. The structure was built in the 12th century. The main room in the church is simple with tall columns and is serenely spacious. There’s a love story of Dom Pedro and the woman he married in secret, who was murdered by Dom Pedro’s father, King Alfonso IV. There isn’t an English audio guide granting us time to walk at our own pace. During our visit there were many rooms under renovation. The monastery allowed monks to live here permanently. The large rooms are dedicated to spirituality, cooking and sleeping. Due to the large rooms, the monks cooked together and slept in the same room. There is even a room dedicated to silence.

Lunch after touring the monastery was at Calderira in Obidos. Due to cloudy weather I got pig knuckle with rice & beans as well as cabbage, a very German meal but it had Portuguese flavors with garlic, olive oil and mild peppers. The pork was good and a large portion to share; rice and beans were terrific. The husband had goat chops with pan fried potatoes and spinach. The chops were swimming in olive oil and garlic, a good sign. The vegetables were cooked nicely but under seasoned. I see a pattern: meat is cooked and salted adequately while the veggies are under seasoned.

What is it with countries on the coast that under season with salt? Salt from the sea is in abundance people! I am judging based on my own preferences but culinary school taught me to adequately season with salt because it enhances the flavors of foods.
Heading north we ended up in Nazaré. Hotel Mar Bravo is modern and attempting to be chic. The main draw is its location and proximity to the shore; our room’s balcony faced the beach. The staff was helpful, the rooms were adequate especially the shower that’s equipped with shower and soaking tub. Surfers flock to Nazaré because of the waves and due to the rain and high tide we saw some tall waves.

During nice weather, it’s a beautiful stroll on the beach that’s equipped with a sidewalk.

For dinner we went to A Tasquinha. We ordered shrimp salad to share: fried shrimp on top of salad greens and mixed vegetables and mayonnaise dressing. Although mayonnaise sounds odd with shrimp salad, it worked. For main the server suggested sea bass, freshly caught. The fish was butterflied, grilled and briefly broiled for char. The fish came with house sauce (olive oil, shallots, cilantro & salt). The sauce enhanced the fish perfectly and made the meal memorable. The sides were green salad, braised cabbage and boiled potatoes. The sides were sufficient for two and fine. The bottle of vinho verde was selected by the server, slightly pricier than house wine but paired properly with the meal. The dessert was almond pudding; eggs, cream and sugar cooked with chopped almonds, typical to the region. The service was spot on and both the server & owner were generous. It’s a small restaurant so we recommend making reservations for a weekend evening.

Here we saw many ladies in traditional garments going about their day. The cool thing was they were all older ladies, dressed in the same type of outfit, skirt, sweater, long socks. It seemed fitting for winter days.

We’d learned of the Mira de Avia caves inland and the perfect activity to be away from the rain. Driving inland, the region is mountainous. The entrance to the caves is shabby with every trinket/souvenir available in Portugal. We were the only visitors that morning and with concern we asked the ticket office if they offer English tours and they affirmed. We waited 20 minutes before a guide arrived, disconcerting. He said he only spoke Portuguese or French. Perplexed we asked the ticket office for an English tour guide and moments later an English speaking “guide” turned up. Quotes because her English was average at best but we were thankful to have someone clarify the basics. Also the caves cannot be visited without a guide. The caves are millions of years old and 700 steps below ground. The guide took many breaks to permit us to take photos and explain the history. After touring the caves we were glad we visited this out of the way sight. Make sure to get an English guide before buying the ticket. The caves are so extensive that there’s even a room created in the formation that is reserved for special events, i.e. weddings, dinners, private parties. Cool.

The tour was 45 minutes and it was 2pm, hungry for lunch we were on a look out for local places. As we were driving back to the coast, I spotted Restaurante Tasquinha D´ Maria on Rua Principal, Porto de Mós, on the windy road. There were few parked cars so we took that as a sign for the locals’ place in the area. When we entered, an older woman pulled the husband’s hand and pointed to a table, gesturing come in and sit. We smiled because we knew we’d entered a place that would feel like the grandma’s home. Once inside we walked through part of a kitchen that had a large charcoal grill built next to the stove. The chef was grilling meats on the entire rectangular grill implying they were busy for lunch. I went back to the grill to ask the older woman what everyone was getting. The older woman handed me the menu and pointed to the meat, in Portuguese, then a younger woman walked over and handed me an English menu. The older woman tugged at my jeans and pointed me to my seat. The gesture felt warm and like my grandma was telling me to take my place at the table. We asked other diners for their recommendations and they suggested beef liver and beef innards. We ordered one of each. The younger woman, also our server, suggested we get fresh cheese and tomato salad. The fresh cheese was amazing, so good we ordered another plate. The cheese had a Greek yogurt consistency and tasted like fresh cheese, perfectly salted. The tomato salad was fine though we were sad the tomatoes weren’t vine-ripe. The mains were accompanied with roasted potatoes for me and french fries for him. I’d never tried beef liver before and I was surprisingly impressed, it was cooked nicely. The husband’s dish was flavorful but overdone, sadly. The roasted potatoes were with olive oil and vinegar, a good accompaniment to the fatty meat. The fries were freshly fried. Later the server asked if we wanted dessert and we declined but having seen other diners order it we opted for one to share. It was rice pudding (or Indian kheer) with cinnamon flavors. Decent finish to the meal. Our total bill was 18 euros for all that food and wine. We loved the atmosphere and the genuine effort the three women and a man put towards their guests. The food here will never compare to a Michelin restaurant but the experience will make this one of the most memorable for us in Portugal. This is a gem and worth seeking out.

We then drove to Batalha for a tour. There are lots of monasteries in Portugal! This one built in the 14th century. There are large, spacious rooms that allowed monks to live in silence. We learned there are designated rooms (kitchen, living, sleeping) because monks must practice a vow of silence at all times. Unlike Alcobaça church, the church here is simple and undistinguished.

With rain prompting our departure we drove to our almost last stop of the trip, Figuera de Foz. Our bed & breakfast, Casa dos Suecos, is in a residential neighborhood and in an unassuming home. Once inside there is a grand dining room for guests, few rooms on the first floor and few more on the second floor. Our room on the second floor was large with a sitting area, a bathroom with a tub and a balcony with a view of the ocean. Although the sea is some distance from the home, it is nice to have a balcony with a view.

We reserved for dinner that evening because the dining room converts to restaurant at night. That night was a special night with a fixed menu due to a certain holiday of love that’s celebrated in America and the tradition has caught on in European countries. (This shows how long I’ve procrastinated on writing this trip report.) The restaurant was completely booked for the dinner.

For appetizers we had filo filled with salmon and spinach, toast with melted brie and balsamic glaze and a sausage bruschetta. All lovely and a great start to the meal with bubbly wine. Second course was layered mozzarella, tomato and eggplant with basil oil, also good. I did think it felt out of season to have eggplant and tomato before Spring but I don’t fault the chef for this. This is an acceptable choice for a large crowd. The main was veal filet mignon with potato au gratin and green bean bundle. The potatoes were great while we think the chef forgot to season the green beans. Our veal was drizzled with garlic oil, and cooked to well done. Another table also received a well done filet so they returned theirs which prompted us to send ours back as well. We felt bad for doing so but it was filet mignon and that can’t be eaten well done! When we got the meat again it was rare and medium rare, like the way it should be. Sadly this second round of meat wasn’t as flavorful as the first one and under seasoned with salt. The dessert was waffle cone with filled with strawberries and drizzled with chocolate. The best part was the salt in the chocolate to play on the sweet and salty. Due to the prix-fixe menu, there was unlimited bubbly wine to start and enjoy with appetizers as well as red or white wine for dinner. Due to the large volume of cooking, there were some missteps however food presentation, flavors and service were impeccable. I think the restaurant was trying hard to serve the best food they could with a full house. The restaurant & bed & breakfast were newly opened when we visited and both have potential to become very popular amongst the locals and tourists.

Our flight home the next day was late so we drove to Aveiro, seaside town by Porto and wandered the town. Not only was Aveiro booming with salt factory export in its heyday, it is buzzing with students because of the university in the town. There are still some salt beds near the canals; speaking of canals, Aveiro calls itself the Venice of Portugal. The boat tour on the canals is nice but it is no Venice. The boat operator said fishermen still use the canals to get to sea for fishing.

The fish market is bustling in the morning until 12- 1pm. It’s not for the queasy mind because the vendors sell the fish and seafood whole.

We ate lunch at O Telheiro near the fish market in the town. Walking inside the restaurant we were directed to the back of the restaurant, where most of the locals sat. We ordered sardines, fish soup, caldo verde and grilled mackerel. The fish soup was flavorful from the fish bone broth, caldo verde (cabbage and potato soup) was hearty, the sardines and mackerel were fresh and cooked to the proper doneness, the side of braised cabbaged with black eyed peas was straightforward and won me over. This entire meal was exactly how we anticipated our last lunch to be fresh foods simply enhanced with lots of olive oil.

A revelation for both of us was the coffee in Portugal. We didn’t think the Portuguese would allow bad coffee but they do, Nescafe, at that! The entire time we were disappointed in the lackluster coffee we drank. Don’t expect much more than watered down, bad coffee here. Another revelation was the love affair with potatoes, like the Spanish. We love potatoes but by the end of our stay we were ready for a break.

Food tip- don’t eat the olives and other starters brought out by the server that aren’t ordered, they aren’t free.

Someone said this was the wettest winter in hundred years. I don’t know how much of that is true or an exaggeration but it rained cats and dogs for most of the time we were visiting. I wish I could warn of a particular rainy season to avoid however this was unusual, even for the locals! Some days were worse than others and it was depressing but the food and sights more than made up for it.

Friday, June 27

multi-city trip to Portugal

Hope you’re ready for lots of trip reports because they’re coming. I am on a mission to write and share about the trips we’ve done, in a short time. Mind you, some are old because I’ve been procrastinating, busy, busy procrastinating.

Our late winter, early spring trip was to Portugal. We’d plan to start in Porto, drive our way down to Lisbon and then drive up the coast back to Porto. Porto is a wine town with plenty of port. It has port cellars because in 18th century producers grew grapes in the Duoro Valley (Pinhao), made port onsite and transported it to the cellars in Porto on river for aging.

Due to our delayed flight, we arrived to the bed & breakfast, The White Box, at 1 am. The room was on the top floor in an attic with a skylight, normally that’s a bonus, however due to constant downpour we barely slept the first night. (The husband and I big fans for thunderstorms, rain and sleeping through dull weather but we were extremely tired that night and couldn’t get much sleep due to the rain.) The next morning we spoke with our b&b host about the weather forecast and she agreed it was gloom (and doom) and the rain wasn’t stopping. Our B&B host said this winter has been unusual in that it’s rained nonstop. Although it rains in February, it’s intermittently. We left grey German weather for grey Portugal weather.

Post breakfast, we reevaluated our schedule and considered an early trip home. Then we agreed we would stay and make the best of our time.

Without a guide or guidebook we wondered around the city on our own. Porto is hilly with few memorable sights including Ponte de Dom (bridge) and the Cathedral. Porto is scattered with tiles on the streets and in public areas. We could’ve easily spent two whole days in Porto but the weather kept us mostly indoors or away from the sights.

For lunch we had two restaurants on our list but couldn’t find either of them and ended up at a no-name place in a small strip mall. The husband ordered a sandwich, Francesinha, while I ordered the daily special. When our food arrived, we realized we should’ve shared the sandwich because it was a hefty portion. The sandwich was ham, grilled veal, melted cheese and a special sauce. The sauce tasted similar to tomato soup and béchamel sauce in one with a touch of hot pepper, cayenne. Although each component was tasty, the sauce made the sandwich a hit. I asked the server if my soup was caldo verde, (Portuguese vegetable soup with potatoes and cabbage or greens) and she said it wasn’t. It was greens cooked in a creamy broth and the greens weren’t overcooked and limpy even after long- cooking in broth. I’d say it was caldo verde and very good. My main dish was Baccalao (salted cod) topped with breadcrumbs and a side of vegetables. The cod was fresh and appetizing but the crumbs and vegetables were not.

Other than sight see Porto, we managed to get a tasting of port at Taylor’s. They offer 3 tastings in the price: dry white that drink like an aperitif, LBV (?) and a 10 year port. In addition to the 3, we bought a tasting of 20 year port. Both the aperitif and LBV was surprising good, above our anticipation. Better yet the husband joked we like cheap wine; that might be true but we like what we like.

We spent couple hours at our cozy bed & breakfast. For dinner we called a taxi to PapaVinhos, highly recommended from a friend. There we ordered pate, tuna salad with mayo, onions and capers. I liked it because I always like that combination but the husband didn’t care for it. For dinner we shared clams in garlic sauce & grilled octopus served with greens and potatoes. Clams cooked in garlic sauce. The chef used generous amounts of garlic and olive oil which is always. While the seafood was perfectly seasoned, the potatoes and greens were not salted. The restaurant host was extremely friendly and suggested a wonderful white wine to pair with dinner; his service made our dinner unforgettable. He even ordered a taxi for us.

Both our host and the B&B were wonderful. The b&B is a gem, our room 6 was spacious and felt like spending time in a friend’s luxurious guest room. The room is in the attic so be prepared to climb some narrow stairs. The host serves freshly baked cakes daily. The host helped us with our day planning to sightsee Porto.

Off to Coimbra, a historic university town on a hill. The architecture is the reason to visit. Most buildings are still being used for classes and offices. We couldn’t get audio for a self guided tour at the university because the office was on a lunch break from 12- 2. And unfortunately the cathedral was closed when we visited.

We found O Serenata and stopped in to find locals eating lunch. I got grilled squid with potatoes, spinach and black eyed peas and he ordered fish with salad. His main dish came with a legume soup which was good but under seasoned. My squid was overdone but the black eyed peas tasted like grandma made them and a winner. His fish was oily and bland, worst yet the salad greens still had dirt on them.

Initially we left Porto with Lisbon as the end destination in mind but due to the gorgeous sunny weather, we stopped in Coimbra for a stop. With or without the guide and tours, Coimbra was worth the short visit.

The distance from Porto to Lisbon is doable in an afternoon, with or without a stop.

After checking into our bed & breakfast/hostel, we headed to dinner in Lisbon at Solar dos Presuntos. The restaurant was extremely busy and didn’t have tables for guests that didn’t make reservations. The host made a makeshift table for us, by the door. Adequate but it was rather awkward and noisy. We were hurriedly asked to order and we picked garlic shrimp and Lamprey escabeche. Lamprey is a fish that looks like a snake. The escabeche was thinly sliced and served cold. It tastes like dark meaty fish. The shrimp were good but not extraordinary. The service was lackluster, the prices high and the locals were treated much more favorably than the tourists. We chose Solar because of the reviews and recommendations from local bloggers and were disappointed. Blasphemy, I know. I’d say save your money for somewhere else.

That night, hungry for more food we stopped in at Prego Sandwiches. Prego is a steak or veal sandwich that’s gained popularity in Lisbon and normally eaten after a hefty seafood meal. Prego Sandwiches is running on that theme and offers 6- 8 sandwiches. We shared a Marialva with traditional bacon and mustard. They offer beer and wine at the bar. The atmosphere is comfortable while the interior is modern (attracts the hipster crowd). The sandwich was acceptable but the meat was medium well, borderline well done. I’d give Prego a try again, with local beer and a sandwich. Next time, I would ask the server to cook the meat a little less, medium rare or medium.

The first day in Lisbon was a wash out, literally. It rained all day and we were wet and cold going from one place to another. About that rain…. goodness. We had breakfast in bed because the husband surprised me, for the heck of it. He is a keeper! Then we walked to Metro, bought the 24 hour metro pass for 6 Euros/person + 0.50 cent for the card. The card can be renewed. Public transportation was cheap in Portugal. Most importantly, it’s convenient and the locals use it as well.

Even with the rain, we went to Castello San Jorge and didn’t go inside because the English tour was offered in the morning and we’d missed it. Instead we walked to National Pantheon. The museum houses Vasco de Gama monument and history of important Portuguese figures. We learned Portugal was under a dictatorship until 1974, shocking. And Antonio Spínola was instrumental in bringing down the government.

After the museum we went to Bon Jardim for lunch. This is the place to get piri piri chicken and maybe some sides. For two people the owner, I believe, suggested a whole chicken to share. The chicken is marinated in the piri piri sauce and roasted on a rotisserie. The chicken is life changing and Bon Jardim deserves a visit. Not only is the chicken flavorful, it’s spicy with a good kick and each table has the piri piri sauce to add to each bite. Add at your own risk because it is extremely spicy but addictive. With a half bottle of wine, we were happy. The restaurant is a modest and attracts the (mostly blue collar) locals and some tourists while the service is thoughtful. Come here for the chicken and leave happy and full.

Post lunch was good time to head back and relax at the room. We headed to Cervejaria Ramiro; it’s a beer house and came highly recommended. Anthony Bourdain visited with his show and I was nervous if it was overrun with tourists. We arrived at 6:30, earlier than the typical Portuguese dinner time, 8:30- 9pm. After our beer order the older gentleman that was our server brought an iPad with all the seafood and fish available for the day. We started with shrimp. Then we ordered oysters on the half shell. The shrimp were steamed and sea salted. The oysters were briny, salty and fresh. Both the shrimp and oysters were ordered by other tables and thankfully we had as well because they were fantastic. Then a plate of tiger prawns; they were halved, grilled and brushed with butter. This was a first for us and we were happy to try them here. Others ordered crab and goose barnacles; during crab and barnacle season try them at Cervejaria Ramiro. Both are pricy so be prepared to spend some cash. We finished our dinner with a steak prego, as dessert, like Anthony Bourdain recommended. Yes, that’s right steak sandwich for dessert; when in Portugal…. The steak was marinated in oil and garlic, cooked rare – medium rare, sliced and served in a bun. The sandwich was served with some garlic. It was life altering, better than the prego from Prego.

The food at Ramiro arrived promptly. The older gentleman looked like he’s been working there for decades and is attentive with all his guests; our beers were refilled regularly. Even with TV exposure Ramiro hasn’t lost its traditional beer house touch and serves memorable food. Fresh seafood comes with a price and a hefty one at that but we nonetheless insist on having a meal here.

We had a schedule for the next full day in Lisbon. First, Jerónimos Monastery is a 20- 30 minute bus ride from Lisbon. It was built in 15th century and is now a UNESCO site. Kings and queens used the monastery as a meditation place. Audio guide tour is essential to understand the history and architecture. The monastery has a church which is included in the tour. The layout is open with a courtyard in the middle. Monastery feels spacious while the church is enclosed and dark.

The Belém pastry, Pastel de Nata, was first created by the monks from the monastery and have become famous for their delectable. We agreed it was fine. Many say the Belém pastry is a must; if you’re in the area try it but it’s not worth the trip.

Before heading back north in our car, we headed to the tile museum in Lisbon. It houses pieces from 18th, 19th and 20th century, Arabic & Spanish influence, the history and evolution of tile making. Due to an earthquake most of the city was destroyed, including renowned tiles. Lisbon panorama on the top floor reveals the city, in tiles, from before the quake. In addition to the museum many stations and city sidewalks display tile work evidence Portuguese love of tile art.

Sintra is a small town 20- 30 kilometers from Lisbon. It is one of the only places we visited that has many castles in a small area. The drive is easy but trains take tourists from the city to Sintra regularly. After wondering around the main drag to find a lunch spot we decided on Restaurant Bristol. Sintra’s proximity to the ocean would warrant unforgettable seafood/fish meals but due to the ongoing downpours the fisherman didn’t fish because of high seas. The server at Bristol suggested a fresh fish and baccalau (salt cod) gratin. I opted for grilled squid and the husband for gratin. The squid was perfectly grilled and delicious. The gratin was shredded potatoes with salt cod and spices; it tasted of American potato hash. This lunch could’ve easily gone the other way since the restaurant seems like a tourist trap but overall the food was good.

For dessert we circled Sintra multiple times to learn Sapa, a bakery, is closer to the train station. Sapa is known for queijadas, local pastry, filled with brown sugar and crispy exterior. The exterior can be best described as a wonton shell that’s fried or baked. The filling is brown sugar that’s broiled in the oven. I enjoyed queijadas but the husband found it too sweet.

With a full stomach we headed to Pena Palace which also took a long time to find. After circling the town and the back roads (our GPS had an incorrect address), we arrived. With our luck that’s also when the rain started to come down. Once the tickets are purchased there are two options: hike to the entrance or drive the rental car to the nearest parking lot. We opted for the latter. The palace is brightly colored and accented with tiles in certain areas. The exterior is more beautiful than the interior. The palace surrounds a large park that’s worth a stroll, if it isn’t raining cats and dogs.

Thus far a decent trip other than the rain. Obidos and northern coastal cities in the next post.

Tuesday, June 24


It’s convenient to be in the middle everything, geographically. Nürnberg isn’t a big city but thankfully there are enough trains/planes that depart from here to few destinations we are lucky. Prague is one city that is extremely close. There are trains but due to its proximity Deutsche Bahn has a bus trip for 19 euros/one way. The bus departs from the main railway station and arrives at Prague main station 3.5 hours later. Tickets can be booked at either stations but it’s highly recommended to book tickets in advance because prices increase. 

I’ve been to Prague couple times and enjoyed each visit. The important sights include the main square with Astronomical clock, Jewish quarter, Charles Bridge, Monastery and Prague Castle. 2-3 day weekend is adequate but 4 days are ideal. If time permits, the communism museum is a must. My friend had it on her list of sights and I am glad because the museum is eye-opening. It documents life under the occupation (rejection of art and culture, secrecy from one’s family & neighbor) as well as the velvet revolution that stood up against and toppled the regime. Also, it's a tongue in cheek to the times. (Click on the photo to read the words)

The Jewish quarter has a synagogue, cemetery and Museum all worth a stroll. There is in depth history of the Jews forced to live in this small area enclosed in the city, ghetto, during Nazi time. Although many Czechs were anti- Nazi beliefs, they were voiceless. Franz Kafka (novelist) was born in the city to Jewish parents and therefore has monuments throughout the area.

Klasterni Pivovar Strahov is a brewery in a monastery and has restaurant with food. The monastery is a steep (and scenic) hike but you will be rewarded with appetizing beer and food. Close to the Strahov is the Castle, residence of the President, and St. Vitus Cathedral. There are sights in and around the castle so plan to spend an afternoon in the area. (Pair it with the Monastery because it’s nearby.) Getting a tour guide for the castle sights is crucial to understand the church and castle’s history. We also toured other sights (Charles bridge, Jewish quarter) with a tour guide which was helpful. She explained the area known as Czech Republic has experienced many changes (including a revolution) and with it came sleuth of names (Czechoslovakia, Czecho-Slovak Republic and etc) for the country.

Another memorable meal was at Lokal. Unlike many Europeans restaurants Lokal is large and spacious. And even with its size and many tables, reservations are a must. Amongst the locals Lokal is a favorite and it’s become a favorite for the tourists too. Rightfully so, Lokal serves authentic Czech food with simplicity. The food reminisces of grandma’s cooking and the food isn’t fussy. This is the first place I tried beef, beef tartare at that. (Who eats beef tartare as their first beef experience? I do!) It came with raw garlic cloves to rub on the grilled bread. I don’t have anything to compare the tartare to but my friend and I agreed it was outstanding. Tartare is very common on Czech restaurant menus and freshness of the meat is important for health safety so ensure the restaurant and the tartare gets high reviews (from the locals). We ordered other food that was also excellent.

Amongst the Germans and visiting Americans, Prague is known as the party town. There are many bars and clubs for the night crowd. Beer is cheap and good, surprisingly. U Zlatého Tygra is one beer house to drink with the locals. It’s small and always full of people for fun and chatter. Smoking is permitted indoors so that can be annoying but few beers won’t hurt and you may even make friends.

The city has dependable public transportation with trams, buses and trains that cover the city extensively. On the first day we’d bought the 24 hour pass. The next day when we were on a tram to get to dinner, we were stopped and checked for tickets. The checker asked for our tickets and told us to get off with him at the next stop. (We knew our ticket had expired and we were planning to renew near the restaurant.) As soon as the tram departed, the checker and his “partner” asked us few questions. Do you know your ticket is expired? Yes but we were planning to buy at the next stop. Do you have your passport? No. How much money do you have? (the husband and I gave each other a look). We have 40 euros. How much money do you really have, he asked? The husband lied again and said 40 euros. He pulled out 40 euros from his pocket and showed him. Clearly, not happy with this answer he said something to his partner in Czech. Then his partner proceeded to call the “head office” we think. This is when the checker told him to stop calling and hang up. He said he’d take the 40 in exchange for fine/penalty. We gave him the money and parted ways.

We will never forget this because of the sketchiness. Here are few things to know, the checker was a bum-looking character with missing teeth, someone we wouldn’t identify as a ticket checker. His partner had a neon vest making them legitimate. Asking how much money we had was a clue that bribing is common with legal officials and tourists. Germans rent cheap cars to drive to Prague because they say there are break-ins, theft and crime is high. This experience clarifies why that is.

To return home on the last day we arrived at the main train station 30 minutes before the scheduled departure. 5- 10 minutes before departure we learned our bus was delayed in border patrol issues and would arrive as soon as possible. We learned Deutsche Bahn was working on getting a Czech bus to drive the passengers to Nürnberg. In the meantime there were more passengers than before, departing on a later bus. A Deutsche Bahn bus finally arrived and we all lined up. We (the initial group) were told we can’t board because this bus is for the later departure. Confused and shocked, we protested why? The driver repeated this is for later departure therefore the passengers scheduled are only allowed; he proclaimed these are the German rules. The husband says rules don’t matter when there’s a missing bus and if there are available seats the (initial group) should be allowed to board. Minutes before leaving the initial group was confirmed to board by the driver. We have no idea what happened to our original Deutsche Bahn or Czech bus.

A note of traveling to the east from Germany, always have passport on hand. I have been checked for passport on each trip. (Keep the passport nearby and don’t give it to anyone that asks for it, especially a toothless ticket checker.)

Sunday, June 22


Greece was planned around the same time as Sardinia. Why two trips in short period? As of April, we’ve learned of some developments that will affect us and our lives after July. June marks our 3 years in Germany and an end for the husband’s delegation. He started looking for new jobs last September but nothing firmed up until April. Details aside he was offered an opportunity in the US in April and our move is coming up. When he received the verbal offer, we planned both. Greece was high on his list due to the history, ruins, and geography (for me, the food!).

This is a long post, so have your coffee, wine, ouzo in hand.

The flight options were 3am or 6am departure and of course I chose the ungodly hour of 3am. He tried to get some sleep that night and I stayed up, like a mad person. With a flight and a transfer we arrived in Athens at 10am. The first stop was lunch, although not at 10!

Paradosiako is in an unassuming neighborhood and popular with the locals. Unfortunately the locals don’t arrive until 1pm, for lunch, and we were early! At 12:30 the host offered us to stay but clarified she had few dishes that were ready; the chefs and freshly made foods would be ready after 1. Lesson learned Greeks (like the Spaniards and Italians) eat lunch after 1. She recommended Stifado (braised beef) with potatoes and stuffed zucchini flowers. Beef was falling off the bone and delightful. The potatoes were mashed. Zucchini flowers were filled with rice and dill. I believe the flowers were boiled in water briefly while the rice and dill cooked separately then the flowers were filled and pan fried. Although we’ve both eaten zucchini flowers (mostly unfilled but few times filled with ricotta cheese and fried), these were surprisingly delicious. One of us still had a little room for something else so we ordered grilled calamari. It came flavored with salt, pepper, olive oil and oregano. We agreed it was the best grilled calamari ever because it tasted like coconut meat. I would’ve never described perfectly grilled calamari as coconut meat but it was that good. Lunch at Paradosiako was relaxed and homey tasting.

Due to lack of sleep we went back to the hotel for a nap. Post nap, we’d planned to walk around the city and browse the city sights however we ran into a walking tour group in front of the Acropolis gates. Thankfully we were able to join the group that was starting when we arrived. We had a guide named George who showed us few city sights by foot. We enjoy these because it’s a great way to get a glimpse of a city. And thankfully George is an archaeologist and very knowledgeable, making this a successful walking tour!

For dinner we ventured out to Piraeus by train, port of Athens. This is one of the ports many ferries depart for the islands. I had few restaurants on the list in the area and Kapetanios won because of its proximity to the train station. There’s a bus that goes to the restaurant but we didn’t know which bus so we walked. It’s a long walk so before going, find out the bus number. The restaurant is tucked away on a side street and hard to find without a GPS. The menu is simple- fresh fish caught that morning along with some mezze (starters or side dishes). Each table picks their fish of choice and orders few accompaniments. The options for that day were red snapper, bourbani (red mullet), sea bream, shrimp, and octopus. We picked sea bream; the man helping us suggested the best one (for size) to share. We also ordered greek salad, fava (bean) puree and house wine. The puree arrived, topped with olive oil, diced white onions and parsley and bread on the house. The bread (served on the house) is grilled and topped with olive oil and spices, nice touch. The fava was creamy, smooth and tasted like green fava beans. We devoured it, fast. Then came the greek salad with tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers, onions and olives sitting under a piece of feta, all dressed with olive oil and lemon vinaigrette. The salad was a large portion, good to share and satisfying. And finally the sea bream. Grilled, seasoned with salt, served with lemons, and olive oil vinaigrette. We had never tasted sea bream before, the fish was grilled perfectly and meaty in texture; outstanding. Word of caution to the faint of heart, Greek fish are served whole with head and bones. That’s the best way to serve because have you eaten those fish cheeks?

For dessert, ice cream is served, on the house, a practice for many restaurants post meal. Kapetanios is a family owned, out of the way and probably rarely sees tourists; I am thankful because they offer friendly service and food that shines in its simplicity.

The next day we toured inside the sights: Acropolis, Ancient Agora, Archaeological Museum and Acropolis Museum. Prior to the trip we’d downloaded Rick Steves’ guides. We didn’t use his guide for the city tour because of previous night’s walk. For Acropolis, Ancient Agora and Archaeological Museum, Rick was so helpful. We are on first name basis. We really enjoyed his guides (in Paris also) because they’re informative and entertaining. Without the guide it would be a tour of bunch of rocks and ruins, not exciting. The Archaeological museum has thousands of pieces and without a guide it would be overwhelming; Rick and his audio partner cover the key pieces in the museum.

Amidst the sights we found a short window for lunch at Kostas. It’s a classic souvlaki joint that’s been around long time and offers couple items: souvlaki, kalamaki (souvlaki served without pita) and few Greek beers rounds out the menu. We ordered two and two beers. The location is small with few bar stools inside and 2 benches on the sidewalk. Arriving early enough, 1 to snatch a bench outside is key because at 1:30 they had a long line. The pork souvlaki is marinated and grilled to order, served in a pita with tomato, onion, parsley and tasty tzatziki. Kostas is small and can be overlooked but the people behind the counter are professionals in souvlaki making and serve great food.

I had more restaurants to try in Athens and a short 2 day stay wasn’t enough to cover them all so my solution was to visit two places for one meal. Our dinner was at To Steki tou Illia. Steki is known for one thing and one thing only, lamb chops. The guests order by the grams; we ordered 300 grams along with a side of tzatziki and horta (wild greens). The chops are thinly sliced, grilled, seasoned with salt, pepper and oregano and swimming in olive oil. They were grilled to correct doneness and delectable; since the chops are fatty, the juices are evenly distributed in the meat. Tzatziki was made with yogurt, garlic and cucumber with 2:1:1 ratio, respectively. Garlicky and cucumbery and very, very good. Horta, wild greens, sautéed in olive oil, served at room temperature were fine but undersalted and not memorable. If you want lamb chops, Steki is a must.

Then onto the second dinner at Oineas. Upon the server’s recommendation I ordered moussaka and the husband ordered stockfish with skordalia. We shared a Greek salad. The salad had sweet tomatoes with peppers, cucumbers, olives, feta and an addition of capers, fresh oregano leaves. The salad was appetizing however I believe capers didn’t add to or subtract from the dish. The oregano leaves were whole and overpowering for the vegetables. The moussaka was bad because it tasted premade; the meat was dry and lacked sauce, the top was gelatinous and weird consistency, and the key component of moussaka, eggplant, was scarce. Surprisingly the husband thought the moussaka was good. The stockfish was battered and fried. It tasted (previously) frozen and the batter was standard. The skordalia wasn’t better. The on house dessert was fresh fruits, redeeming but not much. This is a surprise because Oineas is highly rated online. I believe it’s enjoying the ‘oldest restaurant wave’ and serving average food; the husband is nicer and thinks they had a bad night.

Navigating Athens metro is easy and recommended (over taxi) because tickets are inexpensive; 4 euros/person for day tickets. The trains look like NYC subway trains. Most importantly they are punctual.

With a planned schedule, 2 whole days in Athens is plenty of time. Even though we didn’t visit various Athens’ neighborhoods, we were satisfied with our time.

The next morning we traveled by train to Piraeus Port and boarded our 7:40 ferry. Our stop was to the island of Naxos. We arrived at 11:40 because the ferry was delayed due to long weekend. On the boat, the food options are minimal sandwiches and drinks. It was peak lunch time, in our bellies, so we stopped in Kali Kardia in the port city of Hora (Chora, Naxos city). I’d found the place from a search of goat meat in Naxos and read rave reviews. It is situated on a strip of tourist trap restaurants. The host suggested organic chicken and lamb from the family farm. I asked about goat and he didn’t have any that day but repeated all the available meat was organic from the farm. I wondered if organic and farm were buzz words to attract tourists? We ordered Greek salad, sea bream and later grilled sardines. The salad was light and the sea bream was grilled nicely. However it didn’t taste as incredible as at Kapetanios. I did not care for the grilled sardines because they tasted bitter or off while the husband on found them to be fine. They served coconut cake on the house. The cake was divine and more than made up for the off tasting sardines.

To get to Katerina Hotel in Agios Prokopios from Hora we rented a scooter. The distance is 6 kilometers and on the scooter it is 20 minute ride. The scenery is surreal as the road parallels the sea. The hotel is in prime location, minutes from the shore. It’s called a hotel but designed like an apartment with each room equipped with a kitchenette and adjoining balcony. The hosts are a young couple that is helpful and sweet; they have a small baby and live in the apartment suite above the reception.

We attempted a soak in the water and didn’t last long due to cool water temperature. I was jealous of those people that were able to stay in so we attempted one more time without luck. Instead we sat and read on the beach chairs. (European beaches offer beach chairs and umbrellas, at an average (5 euros/chair) price.)

That night we drove to Gorgona Restaurant in Agia Anna which is family owned. Most of the prepared foods are in the deli case including a large variety of dips (hummus, eggplant salad), casseroles (moussaka, pastisio), and sides (horta, cucumber salad). There are raw meats (lamb, pork, burgers, sausages) and fishes that can be selected to grilled to order. We ordered tzatziki, eggplant salad, lamb souvlaki, and moussaka. The moussaka was exactly how I expected eggplant/meat casserole dish to taste, traditional and comforting. The tomato sauce was cooked with the meat enhancing the flavor. Both the eggplant salad, like a dip of mashed eggplant with peppers and carrots, creamy in taste and tzatziki (garlicky and homemade) were close seconds. The lamb souvlaki was served with fries and also good. For food made by Yia-Yia (Greek grandma), this is the place to go. And watching the sunset is an added bonus.

The next day we drove inland to Hailki (Chalki, Khalki) through the hilly mountains of Naxos. The village is small with few shops and restaurants. The textile shops are worth a stop and a splurge if you’re in the mood. The village was mentioned in NYtimes in March yielding a bump in tourism. Driving through the area was an enjoyable experience. The land is arid with bushes of olive trees all around while herds of sheep and goats graze the land. The scenery is charming with small towns dotted with blue roofs and doors.

Then we headed to Alyko Beach for lunch and to catch some waves. But first lunch! (you see how most of our travels revolve around meals?) As a eatery on my list I had Faros Restaurant near the beach. Thankfully we were lucky to find it on the main road from Halki. With few tables taken by tourists, we reviewed the daily menu and sat down. There is a regular menu and daily specials board. We ordered eggplant saganaki, baked butter beans and goat in parchment. Goat in parchment, what?, said both of us. (Wasn’t fish the only thing that can be cooked in parchment I wondered.) We love goat so when we saw it, it was a must. The menu clearly states few items are fresh while few are frozen. i.e. goat is fresh while the lamb, rabbit and squid are frozen. This is the type of place I appreciate because of their full disclosure and honesty. The saganaki was eggplant baked in tomato sauce and topped with a cheese that was salty, melty and yummy. (Kalofagas tells me it was Kefalograviera- yum!) The beans were slow braised in tomato sauce and dill. The goat was falling off the bone tender and served with oven fried potatoes. Sadly goat lacked salt, herbs or spices but the potatoes were cooked in olive oil, oregano and crispy on the outside. We are biased towards Faros for its view and overall food even though the goat could’ve been better.

We asked the server about the beach, sandy or pebbly, beach chairs and umbrellas and she smiled. She said the beach at Alyko is pebbly and doesn’t offer beach chairs for relaxing. What a disappointment because the water was a gorgeous turquoise blue and tempting for a swim. A few hours at the beach near our hotel with a book and a dip in water we were content. The water in July, we presume, is warmer and swimmable. In June we both had goose bumps going in and when we were inside the water. It’s a risk that I wanted to take because I couldn’t resist swimming in clear water.

That evening’s dinner was at Elliniko in Hora. It’s an organic restaurant that sources locally when possible. Score! It is highly rated on the internet guides so I’d recommend making reservations for a table. Like Gorgona, they have a deli case with daily specials as well as meats and fish cooked to order. We ordered stuffed peppers, Dorado (fish), Naxos sausage and Lamb chop. The banana peppers were stuffed with cheese, served with tomato sauce and unique in taste. The handpicked (by husband) Dorado was grilled and served with olive oil sauce, boiled potatoes and Greek ratatouille (eggplant, zucchini slow cooked in tomato sauce). The fish was fresh and the sauce was a great accompaniment. The sausage and chops had the same sides. The sausage was full of herbs and spices, memorable while the chops were okay. The boiled potatoes balanced the slightly salty ratatouille.

Naxos is the largest island in Cyclades in Aegean Sea. It is quieter of the islands because its economy doesn’t rely on mass tourism. (Mykonos is known for the parties!) It is also the most self sustaining with agricultural products so the Naxans aren’t worried about minimal tourism. The island and its villages are small enough to enjoy good food and relaxation away from the tourists.

We needed it because the next morning our ferry departed for Santorini. Albeit delayed we finally arrived an hour later than planned. Arriving to the island, the layers of rock formation the island is built on is visible and breathtaking. Santorini’s age is visible from the layers of rocks.

The port is on the coast at the bottom of the mountain while the major towns are atop. The terrain is rocky due to the volcanic eruption that formed the island. Driving from the port (there isn’t anything to see or do here, except tourist trap restaurants and bike/car rental companies) to Fira is a curvy, careful maneuver and not for all. Climbing with a motorcycle would be a challenge and discouraged. Local bus services offer tourists an alternative to the upper mainland.

We stopped in Fira for lunch at Lucky’s before heading to our hotel near Oia (northern coast). Lucky’s is a souvlaki joint that makes, souvlaki, falafel and gyros. The owner is welcoming and funny. He suggested I order a falafel while the husband got the gyro (meat cooked on a rotating spit). Both are filled in a pita with lettuce, onion, tomato, yogurt sauce, and fries. We were impressed with the taste of each and therefore ordered a chicken souvlaki. The chicken was tender because it was marinated in olive oil/lemon juice but wasn’t as tasty as the gyro. For a quick lunch stop, Lucky’s is great.

Oia is recommended by all guidebooks, travel agents and internet sites because it is on the northwestern coastal hillside with terraced homes, blue dome rooftops, churches and sea in the background. The sunset in Oia is priceless. This makes Oia a hotbed for tourist bugs, like us. It is one of the most visited islands and has throngs of tourists everywhere. Sightseeing in Oia was taxing. (The parking lot behind the bus stop in Oia is good to get a quieter seat for the sunset.)

We reserved dinner at Roka because Sunday nights are peak for locals going out. (It is hard to find Roka if you’re not looking for it so follow the signs.) When we arrived at 8:45, the entire restaurant was full. We were having a hard time deciding between the seafood so the server said octopus and squid are always frozen so if you want fresh seafood/fish, get mussels, sardines and catch of the day. Good tip! We ordered fava, Greek salad, baked sardines, and mussels. The flavor for fava was spot on; I was disappointed in its pureed (over blended) texture. The salad was very good with sweet, local tomatoes and a creamier rather than crumbly feta. If the Greek salad with few ingredients is this good in Greece, why isn’t it elsewhere? Oh right, because the importance of fresh ingredients is under appreciated. Both the mussels (cooked in tomato/chicken broth) and sardines were pleasant. Roka offers great food and service.

We headed to Megalochori for wine tasting; we learned Santorini wine is getting media press thus the revival of wineries. We wandered through the old town with short walls and locked doors. We ended up at Gavalas winery for a tasting. The tour and tasting are informative and worth visiting. The Assyrtiko grapes have been in Santorini since byzantine, documented, times.

We traveled to the southern tip of Santorini; the distance is relatively close because the entire island isn’t big. There’s a lighthouse that overlooks the sea and a man that was selling cherries. His marketing line was “Cherry, very good. Cherry, very good.” It was comical but we felt bad he was out in the heat trying to make money so we bought his very good cherries. On our way to one of the beaches we saw Giorgaros Restaurant, one on my list. It’s 100 meters from the lighthouse, overlooking the sea and a church. We ordered two fishes from the catch of the day (they take you to the fridge with containers of freshly caught fish); one of them was rock fish. Also, Greek salad and tomato keftedes. The salad was typical but the tomato keftedes were good. The taste was of fermented batter, unlike a tomato fritter I’ve ever tasted; the fritters were a little greasy but the flavor was good enough to overlook the greasiness. The fish were the best choice we made; simply seasoned, grilled and superb. The servers are the daughters of the parents that work in the kitchen and the dad (or an uncle) fish in the morning. For fresh fish, this is the place to go.

Santorini beaches vary from red beach to black sand beach; both pebbly yet have clear waters for swimming. The actual beach at Red beach is difficult to get to with few hills and climbs. Perissa has volcanic sand and long shoreline for beach enthusiasts. The water temperature was cool so we stayed on the chairs with our books. Since it was a holiday, many locals were at the beach with the families, a welcome change from Oia.

Our ferry, Helenic Seaways, to the last destination departed that evening. The ferry was timely and quicker in speed. It arrived on time and departed promptly. And the coolest thing was driving so fast and leaving other ferries behind, in the sea-dust. We arrived in Heraklion, Crete and rented our last car of the trip. Our stay in Agia Pelagia was 30 minutes from the port city. Agia Pelagia is a coastal village built into the Cliffside. There are many restaurants, apartments, hotels there and Diana Apartments is one of them. Each room is set up with a balcony and kitchenette. Our room had a larger than normal twin bed and another twin bed. The view from the balcony is unforgettable. The bed and shower however are forgettable, unfortunately. The bed was uncomfortable and the water from the shower felt like water sprinkler. Diana Apartments’ view of the sea trumps the two negative features.

The host recommended Mouragio Restaurarant on the main strip at the beach shore. We were greeted by Stella and her son that run the front of the house. For dinner we ordered tomato/zucchini stuffed balls, mousakka, tzatziki, horta and beef with onions. The stuffed balls were tomato or zucchini shredded, breaded and fried into fritters. I don’t know if this sounds freaking delicious or terribly boring on words but it was one of the best fritters we’ve eaten. I don’t think I would’ve imagined eating tomato fritters in Crete but we were thankful we did. The beef was slow braised with white onions, hearty because the sweet onions gave it dimension. Horta were sautéed in olive oil and served with lemon juice. Stella said the wild greens grown in Crete are different from other islands; I agree because they were lighter in taste and reminded me of Spinach sautéed in olive oil. Tzatziki and moussaka were fine. They serve watermelon and a homemade dessert on the house.

Crete is one of the largest islands in Greece. Like Santorini Crete is mountainous with towns and cities built on coastal tops or valleys. Since we had all day, we drove to Panormos- inlet and secret cove from the tourists. There aren’t signs of the beach on the main highway so it is easy to overlook. The water is clear and the shore was filled with seaweed sponges. (We repeatedly saw souvenir shops selling bath-scrubs and sponges and wondered why, now we had an answer.) We loved swimming in the warm waters of Crete, so much so we spent our entire day in Crete on this beach. The water temperature was nice, swimming was pleasant and the beach was quieter. In comparison, the water in Naxos was bluer and cleaner and by no means sea sponges are dirty but it was a funny, tickly feeling to stand on in Cretan waters.

We lunched at the tavern at the beach and ate well. The eggplant dip (baba ganoush) were so good, I could’ve licked the plate and the tzatziki was fine. The husband ordered the daily special of rabbit (our server said the boss’ neighbor shoots rabbits for the restaurant. Thanks for letting us know!). The stew was rich but the meat was overcooked. If in Crete, Panormos is the destination to be a beach bum.

That evening we went back to Mouragio. We ordered mezze to share. It included the fritters, fava, beet salad, lamb chops and keftedes (ground meat balls). The fava was made with chickpeas and great. The beet salad was boiled beets, marinated in olive oil and vinegar and served with raw garlic. The beets were fine but the husband wasn’t a fan of raw garlic because the sharp garlic was overwhelming. Lamb chops were grilled flawlessly; I thought they were breaded and fried but the husband disagreed, whatever the case, they were very tasty. Keftedes were made with pork and herbs; good but overdone. If served with lemon, drizzle the juice on the keftedes. This is a great restaurant amongst a row of (possibly) average restaurants.

Since Crete is a large island it deserves more than one day and on my list to revisit. Greece has a large mainland and many small and large islands; its culture, food and sights reflected this in the different places. We had a fantastic time in Greece and would love to revisit the country.

Few important notes, many people asked us about safety in Greece, especially Athens. Not once in our stay did we feel unsafe; this isn’t a general statement for all cases, obviously, but Athens isn’t as unsafe as many believe. I warn of using caution but that should apply in any foreign city/state, regardless of their economic situation. June is the beginning of their summer season so it is highly advisable to book ferries in advance; not only does this secure seats but this saves from the hassle of booking them at each departure. (We were lucky to get seats but in future I’d book in advance.) Our GPS had a hard time determining our destinations because of the different alphabet; ensure you note the English and Greek addresses for all sights and restaurants.

If you’re still reading this, book a trip to Greece because you deserve it.