Ping-Ko Chiu

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Software Engineer,
Location Technologies @ Apple
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28 December 2021

Spain-France-Italy Trip

by Ping-Ko Chiu

Lisbon 13th Dec

All of lisbon’s houses have red shingles. Lisbon has a bridge that looks just like the Golden Gate Bridge from afar. Castle of Sao Jorge had a great panoramic view of the city. Lisbon streets are sprawling and hilly. It was quite fun to get lost in the streets as each street has its own unique characteristics. All of the streets have cobble roads and they are repaired by hand. I saw a worker hold a cobble stone on one hand and an axe on another to chip away the stone until it is in the right shape.

Sintra 14th Dec

Drove to Sintra and visited the National Palace of Sintra, Moorish Castle, and the National Palace of Pena. We parked at the foot of the mountain and took the bus to get around. National Palace of Sintra was built under Moorish rule but was later remodeled after the reconquista. You can see islamic elements like the colorful tiles and arches but also a Christian chapel inside the palace. It had a grand kitchen with two chimneys several floors high. Instead of having chimneys that are just for the fire place, the entire kitchen was under the two giant chimneys. At the height of its time, the kitchen had 18 cooks and thats not including the pastry and other kitchen staff. The Moorish castle was built in the 8th to 9th century CE and later took over by Alfonso Henrique, the first king of Portugal. You can get a panoramic view of the surrounding area where the castle is situated, serving as an important military post at the time. I appreciated the restoration work and presentation of the history of the castle. One can see the historical stone structure and artifacts that have been preserved as well as the modern reconstruction of roofs and doors. The larger reconstructions were done with straight edged rusted metal sheets, giving it a look that is easily distinguishable from the archeological remnants. The metal reconstruction helps with visualizing what could have been with an honesty to the degree of certainty. In fact, next to some of these structures are signs with explanations of how the reconstruction work is subject to interpretation. There was a tomb at the site with with a headstone that had the Islamic crescent and the Christian cross engraved with the epitaph “What man has assembled only God can set apart”, suggesting to me a tolerance of the two faiths at one point in time. The National Palace of Pena is flamboyant compared to the other two. Built in the 19th century, the palace screams romantic style architecture. I can’t help but feel like i was at Disneyland. The colors of the walls are painted bright red and yellow. The sculptures of the entrance was extravagant.

El Reconccilo in Seville 15th Dec

We went to El Reconccilo, a bar that has been open since the 1850s. We sampled Bacalao con Tomate, Tortilla con Jamon, wine stewed pork cheeks, small clams, spinach with garbanzo beans, and manchego cheese with quince jelly and sherry. The Tortilla con Jamon was unlike any other omelette with ham or bacon. The Iberico ham brings a depth of flavor that sets it apart from every other omelette. The stewed pork cheek was like the one we ate in Badajoz. It was served over fries, a side thats used in many tapas dishes. Spinach with garbanzo is cooked like a stew with a hint of cumin. It tasted like a mediterranean and middle eastern dish with the use of cumin and garbanzo beans. The manchego cheese with quince jelly and sherry is a match made in heaven. The dry and tart cheese complements the sweetness of the quince jelly and sherry.

Seville 16th Dec

Walked along the river of seville. Saw a couple of people rowing on the river. Visited the Triana Fresh Market where we ordered a plate of Iberico ham sampler. The three different kinds of ham were all premium Bellota grade — this means the pigs eat a strictly acorn diet, allowed to roam and graze in the forrest, and the ham is hung to dry for at least 48 months. The three different kinds varied in the amount of fat, saltiness, and flavor. We saw some heirloom tomatoes that are as big as my palm. We then picked a seafood restaurant and had boiled shrimp, fried anchovies, fried salted cod. When sitting down at a restaurant, the Spanish waiter always comes and asks what you would like to drink before giving you the menu. Even if we dont know Spanish, we can always just say “cervesa” as the answer to their first question to order beer. It was a Thursday afternoon in Seville and the restaurants outdoor seating was half occupied. People looked relaxed with friends and family even though it is the middle of the weekday. I asked one of the locals why everybody seems to be out and about, she said its around Christmas time and people tend to be out and spending time with family at this time. We went to Cathedral of Seville after and climbed the bell tower which is about 8 floors high. There is a nice panoramic view of seville at the top. We waited for the bell to strike at 5pm but were sad to find that only one of the small bells struck and not all of them. The cathedral is grand with high ceilings and lots of intricate art. Christopher Columbus’ tomb is here. The tomb has a sculpture of the four kings of Spain carrying his coffin. We ate at a restaurant that has a more modern take on tapas.

Alcazar of Malaga 17th Dec

We visited the Alcazar of Malaga, situated on the top of the hill in the city. It was a good hike with a nice panoramic view of the city but the museum was very disappointing. The fortress is mostly empty inside. Besides the walls, there was not much to see. There were a few collections of armors but it was minimal and lacking descriptions. It seemed like the fortress had a series of reconstructions but, unlike the museums of Portugal where the reconstructions were called out or visually distinct, whole buildings have been erected over an archeological site and cement was directly plastered over old walls.

Malaga and football game 18th Dec

We walked to the fresh market of malaga. There were fresh fish, meats, vegetables, nuts, and beer stands. It was much bigger than the fresh market of seville. We sat outside the market and ordered some fried peppers, shrimp cake, red prawns, scallops, and octopus. It was delicious but slightly more expensive than the other places around town.

We went to the Malaga vs Leganes football game. People were passionate — shouting, cursing, making gestures to players, thowing trash into the field, booing at the ref, and chanting. There was a fans section where they just chanted for the whole two hours of the game. There is a chant coordinator that stood on top of the railing with a megaphone to orchestrate the chanting. The players were equally aggressive. A few players shoved each other at one point. The referee dealt seven yellow cards that game.

Drive from Malaga to Madrid 19th Dec

It was a five and a half hour drive from Malaga to Madrid. The scenery was mostly olive farms. Its amazing how much land is dedicated to olive farming. We stopped at a small town called La Carolina for lunch. Picked a random cerveceria. We sat down and asked for the menu and the waiter pointed to himself suggesting that he IS the menu. We asked for his recommendation and he sent three dishes — tomato with salt and extra virgin olive oil with tuna, fried egg on top of potato cooked in olive oil, and a huge steak. The steak was tender and had a distinct mushroom and umami flavor to it. It is one of the best steaks I’ve had in my life. With broken Spanish and English, I tried to asked the guy what makes this steak special and I think he said the beef is aged for a long time.

Toledo and Madrid 20th & 21st Dec

Toledo’s old town area has city walls that surround the entire town. It is quite a sight to be seen. We drove along the walls until we found the gate to enter. We had some delicious sardines in vinegar and pork cutlets. We walked along the town a bit more before checking out the cerveceria in downtown.

Toledo has a military museum that exhibits Spain’s military history. We weren’t able to finish the museum as it was so big and had many separate exhibits. One of the exhibits is on the Celtian town of Numantia. Numantia defended the region against romans for many years. It took a famous roman consul Scipio Aemilianus and thousands of man to build a blockade encompassing the entire town for it to fall. We had an ok paella at a restaurant nearby. Given that paella is supposed to be from Valentina and not Toledo, I made peace with the subpar paella. We drove back to Madrid, checked into the hotel, and set for the Prado art museum. We were met with a huge museum and not enough time again. There we saw two exhibits that I’ve forgotten the name of. One of them is Christian art throughout the ages where we saw The Garden of Earthly Delights. The other exhibit was the Ibericoamerica arts — art exchanges between Spain and America for the purposes of colonialism and missionary. We went to see a flamenco show. It was in an intimate underground setting. The music and dance was passionate and powerful. I was very moved.

Travel to Parma 22nd Dec

We set off early in the morning to catch a flight to nice. As soon as we landed, we drove straight for Parma. We got a covid test at the Nice airport expecting that we’d encounter a checkpoint at the Italian boarder but that did not happen. The roads in Italy were great but the highway is not free. We paid a little over thirty euros to drive from nice to parma. We stopped by a little town, Albenga, for pizza. When we got there at 12:30 the place was already in the process of closing. This is so different than in Spain where restaurants open at 1pm. The tagliatelle was delicious but the pizza was a bit soggy. When we started rolling into the Emilia-Romagna region it was extremely foggy. It was somewhat dangerous to drive at night with all the fog. After checking into the airbnb, we stopped by a pub to grab a beer. I was pleasantly surprised that the beer came with food as it did in Spain. We went to a traditional trattoria to eat some tortelloni and more tagliatelle. We had a bottle of barbera produced around the area and it was delicious.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar from Modena 23rd Dec

We went to a traditional balsamic vinegar shop where we got to taste the 12 and 25 year vinegar. Traditional balsamic vinegar differs from regular balsamic vinegar of modena in the time and process. The minimum time required for traditional balsamic vinegar is 12 years as opposed to the 6 months of balsamic vinegar of Modena. It is also a labor intensive process where the must is cooked down to 30% moisture and aged in a series of barrels that decreases in size. In chatting with the lady, we learned that traditional vinegar makers only do it as a side job. They all have full time occupation else where. I asked whether the “glazed balsamic vinegar” that we see in US supermarkets is at all related to the traditional balsamic vinegar, the lady scoffed and said that is a US invention and has nothing to do with the traditional balsamic vinegar. I purchased a 75 euro bottle of the 12 year. It was fruity and sweet.

Missing car 23rd Dec

When we got back to where we parked our car, the car was missing. We thought it could either have been towed or stolen. There was a sign on the other side of the street indicating that parking is not allowed across the street. We connected with the Modena police department and got the location of the towing station from the police. We were delighted to find our car towed instead of stolen. The fine turned out to be 74 Euros which is nothing compared to several hundred dollars in the US.

Almost missed the train 24th Dec

On Google maps, the train station is 5 min walk from the airport. I planned to drop the others off at the station while I go to return the car and walk back from the airport to the train station. We made a mistake in thinking that the car rental return is at the airport. Instead, it is a 25 minute walk from the airport. I returned the car at 11:10AM and the train is leaving at 11:25AM. I ran to the taxi and was told that there is a flat 36 Euro fee for any distance. The uber pickup location is nowhere to be found. I saw that the tram was leaving in one minute and would get me close to the station so I quickly bought a 1.5 Euro ticket and boarded the tram. It is but a two station journey so I thought I’d be there in a jiffy. I relaxed for a brief moment until we got to the first stop. The tram dwelled at the station for 5 minutes! I looked at my watch and I had but 12 minutes left. The walk is 20 minutes. I jumped out of the tram and started sprinting. Luckily I asked the others to be at the station along with my luggage instead of accompanying me to the rental return. All I had was my backpack. Still, I have been eating and doing no exercise all this trip. The run was exhausting but the idea of missing the train and having to wait for hours until the next train haunted me. I made it to the station just as the train was rolling in. I threw my arms up as got onto the platform as if I had just finished a marathon.

Marseille 25th Dec

It was a blue cloudy day in Marseille. The train station had a nice view of the city and the castle on top of the hill. Our airbnb seems to be in a Muslim part of town. Some of the Muslim shops were open but most of the shops and restaurants were closed for Christmas. There was a Christmas market but only half of it was operating. We walked along the pier and the coast. There was a pretty black stripped cathedral and a futuristic art museum by the coast. We walk all around town to find a groceries store that we could buy some stuff but couldn’t find any besides a small corner store. Without any restaurants to go to and any real groceries stores, we managed to put together a christmas meal with microwaved food and two bottles of wine.

Nice 26th Dec

A short walk from our airbnb lies the blue beach that gives us a view of the 115.5 degree Cote-Azur cove. It is a pebble beach with round pebbles washed down from the rivers into the cove. There was a big Christmas market at the town center and we tasted the chickpea pancake and a local unpasteurized beer.

tags: Travel