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Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Best of Europe

I'd better write about my trip to Europe before it fades into pleasantly fuzzy memories of scattered moments. Feeling too lazy to write actual prose, I present the following list of Bests:

[Best Pastry] Hands down, the raisin brioche I had the first morning we were in Paris. Actually, this is also an all-time best -- it was really frickin' good. True, it had an unfair advantage over competing pastries because it was hot from the oven. But it was so sublime that it couldn't have owed it all to its warmth. (Plus, later in my visit I had another pastry that was still warm, and it was very tasty but not up to the same level.) The best part is that this came from an ordinary pastry shop down the street from our hotel, and cost about one Euro. In America, not only are the pastries a pale imitation of the real thing, but they also cost twice as much.

[Best Museum] This is tough, because I went to a lot of museums, but I think I most enjoyed the Musee National d'Art Moderne, located in the Pompidou Center in Paris. A lot of really cool stuff in a neat setting (one of the few thoroughly modern buildings in central Paris, contrasting with the old charm of the rest of the city), and we spent a solid chunk of a rainy afternoon perusing it.

[Best Hike] Well, though I did lots of walking throughout the trip, I only went on one walk that could properly be called a "hike." But it was a good one: Kat and I took the train out from Barcelona to Montserrat, a spectacular setting of rocky ridges and mountains. The area is anchored by a monastery hanging on the edge of a cliff that was founded where a religious icon was supposedly found. Though that part was mobbed with tourists, the amazing hiking trails were pretty empty, which was great.

[Best Fountain] Definitely the hilariously overdone fountain in Barcelona's Parc de la Ciutadella.

[Best Stroke of Luck] After taking the overnight train from Madrid to Lisbon, Kat and I arrived at our hotel feeling a bit tired and dirty. But despite arriving at 8am, we were able to get straight into our room to freshen up, and the hotel was still serving complementary breakfast. Made our first day in Lisbon a lot better.

[Best Market (Food)] La Boqueria in Barcelona. I stopped here most days I was in the city, the highlight being the fresh fruit. You can get an excellent variety of fresh juices and fruit salads.

[Best Market (Goods)] The Feira de Ladra (Thieves' Market) in Lisbon was what I hope for in a market: Lots of random stuff that looks like somebody pulled it out of their grandmother's basement. (And plenty of people selling cheap knock-off fashion items, but that's not so interesting.) But it's in another country, so it's even more fascinating than the same sort of thing back home.

[Best Purchase] At the above market, I purchased a vintage, and extremely red, Portuguese telephone. I'll have to make sure to get a landline at my new place in DC so I can use it. Then, when you call me, it'll look like I'm getting instructions to go to DEFCON 4.

[Best View] Lots of competition in this category, but the best was probably the view from San Jeroni, a mountain Kat and I climbed while we were at Montserrat.

[Best Park] Park Guell in Barcelona, designed by revered native son Antoni Gaudi, is amazing. It's up a hill overlooking the city, and was apparently originally designed as a very snazzy subdivision (before they started calling them that), but only two houses were ever built. Gaudi's style makes excellent use of organic forms, and lends itself very well to a park. Reed and I got there near dusk, and it was gorgeous, so it was a little disappointing when I went back with Kat in mid-morning and found it mobbed with tourists.

[Best Overheard Conversation] In Montmartre, Paris, while we were looking for a place to eat dinner, I overheard the following snippet, from an American girl talking to a French man who was leaning against a wall: "How do you...how do the French stay so thin? I mean, there are so many carbs!"

[Best Biking] It was cool to see the bike sharing systems in Lyon and Barcelona, but we couldn't use them because the machines can only read European credit cards that have those little gold chips in them. However, when Kat and I took a commuter train up the coast from Lisbon to the picturesque town of Cascais, we found they had bikes you could use for free just by giving your name. We borrowed them and rode five miles or so up the coast on a bike path to a nearly deserted beach.

[Best Public Transportation System] All the cities I visited had very effective metro systems. But the Paris one definitely wins because of its extensive network and high-frequency service. And its cool signs.

[Best Meal] A lot of competition in this category, too. I think the distinction goes to the Catalan place where Reed and I ate in Barcelona. I had sole with nuts and raisins, which was excellent, and this awesome merengue dessert. But close runners-up include the crepe places we ate at in Paris, Indian food with Jesse and Sophie in London, and the bistro-y place Kat and I ate at the last night in Portugal.

[Best Idea That We Should Appropriate] Permanent ping-pong tables in the park, as seen in Barcelona.

[Best Doughnut] Portugal is famous for its custard (custard tarts are a big thing). At a tiny little pastry shop that was overrun with sailors from a docked Portuguese navy ship, I ate a truly excellent doughnut that put any American "custard" doughnut to shame. It was a more or less spherical model coated with granulated sugar, but the master touch was that they cut a slit in it an placed a fold of custard inside. This custard is not the runny, flavorless pudding we have here, but firm, somewhat eggy and deeply vanilla custard. It does not squish out all over when you bite the doughnut, and it tastes really, really good.

[Best Neighborhood] Alfalma, in Lisbon, is a charming, old neighborhood that I spent the last day of my trip wandering around. It climbs a hill just east of downtown, and has tiny, tangled streets that force you to consult your map frequently if you're trying to get anywhere specific. It was here that I ate the doughnut I cited above. Adding to the atmosphere was the fact that the entire neighborhood was busy preparing for the festival for the city's patron saint the next day, stringing decorations across the streets and setting up endless charcoal grills and kegs of beer.

[Best Walk Sign] In the suburbs of Paris, where we were looking at the house Reed's parents used to live in. Seems to say, "Walk, but please do it in as French a manner as possible."

Anyway, it was a great trip. And I'm grateful to Jesse and Sophie for letting me stay with them, as well as Reed and Kat for traveling with me -- having such cool company made the trip for me.

A collection of photos is on Flickr.

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