Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Vacation Quest - Try and Live Like a Bit Like a Local for the Full Experience

Have you ever thought about someone visiting the town you live in from another City, State or Country? Would they get the real feel of what it's like to live in your neck of the woods by staying in the local hotel, dining at the local Yelp approved restaurants, and hitting all the tourist handbook spots?  As my wife and I have travelled throughout the years, one of our common quests regardless of where we were headed was to be more of a traveller than a tourist.  Don't get me wrong - we still hit the touristy spots to see the best sites a place has to offer, but we also try and find ways to experience our destination a bit more like a local might. For me, that mostly translates into shopping at local food markets, and doing a little home cooking on the road.
Great Words of Wisdom from a Guy Who Has Been All Over the World

In planning this year's vacation, I focused on finding accommodations at most of our stopping points that were some type of Apartments, so we could shop for groceries locally and I could try my hand at cooking just as a local would.

Paris, France
Our first stop on this year's vacation was Paris.  To date we had only travelled through Paris on our way to Spain, but for nearly no difference in our Air France airfare, we were able to add a few days of a "stopover" before continuing on to Spain.  

After doing some research about local areas near cool places like the Louvre and Notre Dame that still offered access to street markets of local vendors, I had booked a studio apartment at the Residence Villa Daubenton in the Latin Quarter of Paris. 

Unfortunately our studio Apartment was nothing like the photos they featured on TripAdvisor, etc which looked spacious, well equipped and complete:
Hmmm... This Must Have Been the Upstairs Apartment!

Our kitchenette looked nothing like this - it was tiny, tucked in a corner, and most of the equipment provided was damaged or outright broken. The worst was a coffee maker where the handle was not connected at the top of the pot, so when I picked up our first pot of fresh hot coffee, I almost ended up wearing it!  On the upside, our room had a fabulous private courtyard, and was only a couple of blocks from Rue Mouffetard, a wonderful pedestrian only street with fantastic restaurants, bars, and local vendors.
Rue Mouffetard, Paris

We quickly found a favorite local wine shop, right next to a great cheese and sausage shop.  Many of our evening meals were quite simple, some great wine, some fantastic locally made cheese and sausage - we enjoyed the incredible quality goods, while we chatted about the great sights we had seen during the day at the Louvre, the Musee d'Orsay, or just walking the streets of Paris.
One of My Favorites from a Strange and Creepy Exhibit at the Musee d'Orsay

A definite benefit to wine shopping in Paris was a selection of fairly reasonably priced Burgundy wines.  This 2009 Domaine Arnoux Savigny Premier Cru was less than $30, and paired nicely with a set of cheese that my wife and her high school French scored us at the local shop.  
Mmmm... Burgundy!

We enjoyed an incredible Roquefort blue cheese, and an equally scrumptious Brillat Savarin. Brillat Savarin is a nicely acidic triple creme cheese that I've bought at Whole Foods at home in Chandler, AZ before. The one Whole Foods had was great, but was nothing in comparison to this one.  Round out our veggie-free dinner with a hard sausage and it was an incredible end to a great day in Paris.

Shop Local and Enjoy!

Oh, and I did figure out a way to get the coffee out of a half-handled coffee pot, so our mornings were typically the classic, if a bit cliché,  coffee and croissants!

Barcelona, Spain
One of the most anticipated of our vacation stops for me to live a bit like a local was Barcelona.  Barcelona is home to a magnificent market that I visited once before - but at that time was not able to buy or enjoy any of the incredible products - I was just able to look and dream. This market is the Mercat Boqueria on the La Rambla. I loved my first opportunity to work through the market years ago - but ever since I've craved going back and actually shopping and preparing some of the most beautiful seafood and produce I've ever seen.

Some of the Incredible Sites at the Mercat Boqueria in Spain

In Barcelona, I picked an Apartment on one end of the La Rambla area next to the popular Plaza Catalunya.  The Amister Apartments are associated with the Amister Hotel in Barcelona and there was absolutely none of the disappointment we experienced in Paris. Great location, and fantastic Apartment, with a well stocked kitchen - perfect!!! 
Amister Apartments in Barcelona - Score!

Now off to the market! The market has a great selection of meats, but the freshness of the seafood was completely irresistible.  We purchased mussels, clams, chorizo, some type of crabs that resembled rock crabs.  A quick stop at a wine shop on La Rambla to get a nice bottle of $15 Albariño to have with our haul, and a bit cheaper bottle to use for cooking. Remember - always use wine good enough to drink for your cooking or it will ruin your food!  I used the chorizo to flavor some olive oil along with an onion, threw in the clams first, then the mussels for a bit - then added the less expensive Albariño and let it cook until the shellfish opened up.  Finish the dish with a bit of parsley for color - and boom!  Awesome if I do say so myself.  The crabs were also fresh and good - but a lot of work to cook, clean, and get at the delicious crab meat!


Delish - but a Lot of Work!

We had only two short nights in Barcelona - one devoted to cooking and one devoted to trying a great local restaurant - Paco Meralgo (those of you Spanish speakers may get the joke with the name - hint, say the name slowly).   Our next trip to Spain will definitely include more nights in Barcelona to try more goodies from the Mercat Boqueria, plus time to try more of Barcelona's restaurant scene. I can't wait!!!

San Juan de Parres, Asturias, Spain
The bulk of this year's vacation was spent in a small town in the Asturias region of Spain. Asturias is in northern Spain, and is definitely one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen - and I have been lucky enough to visit here several times. Lots of great hiking, breathtaking sights, and lots of great local food.  This is my wife's native land, and I can see why she loves to return as often as possible. We picked a new place to stay for this year's visit - San Juan de Parres which is a small small town just up the hill from Cangas de Onis.  I had picked out what looked to be a new tourist Apartment - Apartmentos La Senda.  Upon our arrival we found brand new Apartments - maybe stayed in once or twice before - absolutely gorgeous.  Oh - and the view out the front picture window was not bad either, check it out:

View from Apartmentos La Senda

One of the great features of these Apartments is that each unit has it's own charcoal grill in the backyard. Asturias is milk country - which also makes it beef country. Shopping at the butcher counter in Spain in different than grabbing something at CostCo or Safeway at home. In Spain, it really is a butcher counter with large slabs of different types of meat - you just need to say what you want and how thick, and they will cut it for you on the spot.  To try out our backyard grill, we went for a couple of gigantic "chuletas" or chops on the bone.  In Spain the meat tends to get cut thin, so we had to specifically asked for a bit thicker cut, so we could get a good sear on the meat, and still have it come out mid rare.

A Couple of Chuletas Ready for the Grill

The Finished Product

The best steaks I've ever made I do believe - and matched with one of my favorite wines - a 2009 Alto Moncayo Garnacha (Grenache) - we were stylin' while living like the locals!

I typically do most of the cooking at home, but in her native land my wife gets inspired to cook up some the local specialties of her homeland.  She started off with a Spanish Tortilla - nothing like a Mexican tortilla, this is a hearty combination of potatoes, onion, chorizo, and eggs - great with a Rioja!

Spanish Tortilla

Next up was an excellent pot of Fabada - an Asturian bean stew made with Chorizo, Morcilla (blood sausage) and a nice chunk of Spanish bacon.  Delicious - plus add some wine and it definitely gets you all ready for the afternoon's siesta!!! Just a quick two or three hour nap, and I'm ready to go for the night!

Find Your Own Way
For me, cooking is a great way to experience a key part of other cultures - food!  Even if cooking on vacation doesn't sound relaxing to you, do try and find ways to experience the local culture of your chosen destinations in the spirit of a traveller, not a tourist - you will not regret it!!!


  1. I really enjoy you posts!

    1. Thanks so much - I truly appreciate the feedback! Cheers to you!


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