Friday, July 24, 2009

Portugal's Other Algarve-Surfing & Yoga

Despite visiting Portugal once or twice a year for quite some time, I've always avoided the Algarve because, as you know, I'm interested in what I call "hidden treasures." And things just didn't seem so hidden there. But having visited the Southwest Algarve, I discovered what is referred to as the "other Algarve."

The base for my visit was the Monte Velho Nature Resort, a true hideaway with plenty of comfort and no attitude. In fact, the vibe here is so mellow and welcoming, that I wished I had at least a week to more fully enjoy the property. If any place would turn me from a type A New Yorker to a tranquil type B, this would be it.
The owner, Henrique Balsemao, is a former publisher and TV producer who sets the tone for the low-key vibe here. He's a committed surfer and yoga aficionado who's in love with barnacles -- catching them and eating them. You can't get more interesting than this. (If you've never eaten barnacles, by the way, you'll find these odd looking creatures to be both succulent and sweet.)

Both the public rooms and guest suites are decorated with artifacts and furnishings from around the world: bold art from Brazil, rugs and couches from Guatemala and Morocco, creative sculpture and paintings (all those in the lounge are for sale) from local artists, even a sculpture of a Hindu god in the dining room. It's an eclectic mix that works.

During my stay I enjoyed one of the best sports massages from a German physical therapist who studied Ayurvedic massage in India. (He used some "secret" oils and Indian herbs on my overuse injuries.)

The next day began early with a relaxing yoga session in a gazebo facing the rising sun high on a hilltop above the sea. Then, it was a leisurely breakfast while sitting under a pergola draped with colorful bougainvillea and watching the horses graze. (Henrique also has several donkeys that children can ride.)
The outdoor hammocks and rattan deck chairs from the Philippines were certainly seductive. But, since I'm all about being active, instead I did a five-mile hike along the coast that also wandered through a shady pine forest, all not far from Carrapateira. During my trek, I walked past Henrique's favorite beach, Bordeira) where he surfs. Interestingly, he finds it better than being in Bali where it's hard to be alone on the sand or in the surf.
If you want to try out the surf board, Henrique will set you up with lessons at the surf school. Or you can mountain bike on off-road trails. They've also got a one-week yoga retreat and on Saturdays in the summer you'll be able to enjoy a Moroccan buffet in the evening or even belly dancing.

This is the Algarve I never knew.
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Friday, July 17, 2009

Corsica's Artisan Route

I always enjoy reading books or articles on places I've traveled and perusing the recent article on Corsica in Travel & Leisure was no exception. It's always great to see a country through the eyes of someone who has roots in the land, as the author does. As you know, I've posted on Corsica a couple of times already and have written many magazine articles, all focusing in on the off-the-beaten-track travel and hidden treasures that are my specialty. Since I noticed the T + L article didn't deal with one of my favorite haunts in Corsica, I wanted to share this unforgettable region with you.
The Balagne region of Corsica may be France's best-kept secret. This mountainous area in the north of this island is dotted with hilltop villages that snuggle against the backdrop of jagged peaks. In fact, detouring from the much-loved coastal resorts is a must for those who want to find the Corsica of centuries ago. Many of these villages date back more than 1,000 years and yet these are active communities where artisans and crafts people thrive.

Driving the Routes de Artisans along the wiggly roads that wind through this land of olives and vines, I met an array of personalities producing glassware, pottery, wine, olive oil, honey, almond biscuits, chestnut cakes, knives and aromatic oils. For example, Helene Cancela, a jeweler near the seaside town of Ile Rousse, etches bronze and sets semiprecious stones with healing properties in silver, creating organic works. Outside Calenzana, Rony Annick weaves olive branches, myrtle and bamboo into all manner of traditional baskets. Calvi’s knife maker, Patrick Martin, originally a sculptor, forges knives that are works of art. Don't be surprised when you enter his shop and see it decorated with animal skulls, since he delicately fashions the handles from antelope, goat and even boar horns or skulls. Carole Fanet, a potter in Algajola, produces contemporary works that are influenced by her travels in Asia.
But, probably the heart of this artisanal area is Pigna, the music town, as it's known. No wonder, considering this hamlet became the center to resurrect Corsican traditions, including paghjella singing, and playing the cetera, a lute-like instrument that people from all over Europe now order from Pigna. Every July during the Estivoce festival that virtually takes over this hamlet, visitors can experience five days of theatrical and musical productions.

I wandered the narrow cobbled lanes and met women making wooden music boxes that play traditional Corsican lullabies; in another shop, Mr. Quilichini produces earthenware works that are inspired by Genoan pottery, which divers found off Corsica’s coast.
Herve specializes in contemporary Asian-inspired, etchings as well as 18th century copper prints that he collects from antique shops. Among the most interesting items you can buy is one of Ugo Casalonga's ceteras made from walnut and cypress or Corsican flutes from goat horns.Among the most interesting items you can buy is one of Ugo Casalonga's ceteras made from walnut and cypress or Corsican flutes from goat horns. In Casa Savelli, Dominique Giantini sells locally made items, such as clementine marmalade, myrtle vinegar and chestnut flour cakes.

The hamlet has three restaurants, all serving local products. Casa Musicale is a stone dwelling that combines a thriving music center and a lovely inn that's decorated with an array of authentic items, including a handmade harpsichord. Lunch and dinner is served in the barrel-ceilinged stone dining rooms that are housed in the original olive oil mill. The terrace perched on the hillside is much sought after during mealtime to catch views of the Algajola Bay. U Palazzu is a 400-year-old villa that's been in the Franceschini family for generations. Their fine restaurant, serving dishes that include grilled sea bass with risotto and artichokes and prawns with pumpkin sauce, is also housed in a former olive oil mill, where two centuries-old presses are still present. Finally, A Casarella serves up organic cuisine that focuses in on tapas, such as anchovy filets, sheep's milk cheese and mashed chickpeas with olive oil. Their dining room, dating from the late 1700, was once an animal shelter. But most guests opt for the terrace seats to glimpse the fabulous sunsets.
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Monday, July 13, 2009

Lisbon's New Style-Conscious Hostels

I've stayed in plenty of hostels all around the world. And though they can make a good value option, especially for international travel, many can hardly be called stylish. But on my recent trip to Lisbon, I found a handful of new hostels (and one guest house) that were the exception.

1. At the Rituals Backpackers Hostel, the rooms are all named for Fado singers. Housed in a centuries-old building, this hostel is not a throwback to times gone by. After all, the sitting room comes with a plasma screen TV and guests have access to free WiFi and computers with Skype. The red drapes, pendant lights, black lacquered tables and multitude of throw pillows make it difficult to pull yourself away from the comfortable lounge area.

2. The nine-room Shiado Hostel has an eco-friendly bent. The reading lights in the guest rooms are all energy efficient and, continuing with a trend towards conservation, many of the furnishings are reused and restored, even the computer hard drives. Here, you also have an amalgam of the old and the new coexisting in harmony. The owner's friends donated contemporary paintings that hang in the living room that also displays trunks and chairs from his grandparents. A lovely touch can be found in the kitchen/dining room where recipes for notable Portuguese specialties are written on a blackboard.

3. The Kitsch Hostel couldn't be more appropriately named. The living room and dining room are both a rainbow of brilliant colors from the collages on the walls. You could spend a lot of time analyzing the symbolism behind various portions of this artwork -- I gave up psychoanalyzing after about half an hour. Graffiti is painted across the internet room -- also appropriate given the nature of communication that takes place there. Ascend a narrow spiral staircase and you'll find pure white guest rooms accented by crimson curtains. (Apparently many pedestrians feel the need to visit this venue because of these bold curtains visible from the street.)

4. Lisbon Dreams Guesthouse may technically not be a hostel but I'm including it because it's so economical. Open since May, this accommodations is your ticket to affordable luxury. The 10 private guest rooms all have a white-on-white color scheme -- the only other color comes from the green apple on the bed and the bright throw pillows. Sure, you have to share a bathroom but you'll hardly mind given the comfy robes and slippers provided. You also have full use of a laptop in the sitting room which also comes with a huge plasma screen TV. But the highlight for me was the meandering outdoor patio that's perfect for dining or sunning in the lounge chairs.

I wish I knew about these hostels before my trip. Next time, I'll be sure to stay at one.
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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Lisbon's New Goings-On

On my recent visit to Portugal I found plenty of new goings-on, especially in Lisbon, one of my favorite cities in Europe. What was especially lovely was observing how the Portuguese dive into the ultra-modern design and culinary scene head first, while still maintaining their roots in their centuries-old traditions.

I'll be posting quite a bit on Portugal in the next few weeks. This is the first, representing just one day of discoveries.

I'm very much a fan of creative design concepts and I wasn't disappointed at Lisbon's new Internacional Design Hotel where I stayed. An artistic touch suffuses everything in this hotel that's housed in a building dating from 1899. In fact, the thinly-sliced fruits standing on edge were so captivating that I couldn't help staring at the breakfast buffet. The multi-shaped cereals were even served in shot glasses. You gotta love this. Quotes from Alice in Wonderland rolled past me as I climbed up in the glassed-in elevator. And this is truly a wonderland, with four guest room concepts: tribal (zebra details), Zen (bamboo and quotes from Suzuki), urban (graffiti) and pop (think Warhol). (Since I"m a fan of all things Asian, It was lucky that my room was on the ever tranquil Zen floor.) My favorite color -- purple -- tinted many aspects of this hotel: I found the reception staff wearing purple bow ties, while the banisters were lit up with purple lights. The bathrooms are no exception to the wild and the wacky: toilet paper comes in orange, chartreuse and black hues.

For lunch I chose Sommer -- where coincidentally orange colors perfused the interior -- a restaurant that opened last year. This is a perfect eatery for those who want fast but fab food. In fact, that's their specialty: they can serve a salad in three minutes, a pasta or risotto in five and other hot dishes in 10 minutes. The traditional easily mixes with the more contemporary fare: on the menu you'll find a fine pear soup (hardly traditional) along with a baked chicken served with a traditional farinheira, mashed potatoes and apples. I chose a salad with moist strips of duck breast and drizzled with a marinate of figs and port wine. The most popular dishes are the risottos, such as the one featuring spinach and beans.

For a perfect afternoon refresher, stop in one of three gazebo-like kiosks -- Quiosque de Refresco -- serving traditional food and beverages that were once popular in the 19th century. I hung out at the venue positioned in Camoes Square (great for ultra people watching) and sipped groselha -- a tasty sugary red berry syrup that's mixed with water, and munched pastel de feijao brasao, a moist bean and egg cake. The two other kiosk venues are in Jardim de Principe Real and Praca das Flores.

I certainly have a thing for vibrant colors and they were on full display in the just opened Allarts Gallery where most of the works are produced by naive or unprofessional artists from, aside from Portugal, Brazil, Finland, Turkey, Argentina and Italy. The works will change every couple of months or so. My favorites were the lavender fields of Sema Culam from Turkey as well as the moonscapes by Lena Koski of Finland.

No wonder my taxi circled the Chiado neighborhood for a good 30 minutes before he found the location of Cafe Fabulas. The restaurant sits along a long set of pedestrian-only stairs where clearly no taxi can navigate. It's a good thing I didn't give up looking for this venue because I would've missed being transported to another century once you enter the network of rooms with vaulted ceilings, archways and rough stone walls. It feels like part art gallery, antique shop and comfy/cozy eatery in someone's ancient home. The walls are bedecked with black and white photos of scenes from old movies, candelabras abound as do tables topped with old sewing machines. I settled into a tiny alcove and enjoyed a grilled goat cheese sandwich with tomato and basil. To finish off a day of discoveries, I nibbled on the yummiest dessert: strawberry slices marinated in mint with a mango sauce and topped with a melted white cheese.

These are all experiences that make a trip to Lisbon unforgettable.
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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Radio Broadcast on Estonia

Chris Christensen at the Amateur Traveler recently interviewed me about my travels in Estonia, especially in the lovely medieval capital city of Talllinn. For lots of tips on what to do and see and to find out why I love Estonia, check out this podcast.
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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Loving Molecular Gastronomy

Some of you may know that I'm a scientist by training (microbiology, nutrition & exercise physiology). And given my love affair with food, it's always fun to be able to combine food and science. That's what happened recently when I attended and reported on a symposium held at New York University. At the Experimental Cuisine Collective, chefs, the press, students and all manner of scientists get together to discuss what's new and interesting in the culinary world. If you love all things about food and you're in New York City, check out their schedule of events.
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