Cadiz and Chiclana de la Frontera

Susan's childhood friend Karen lives in the coastal town of Chiclana and invited us to stay with her a couple of days, so after two nights in Seville we picked up our rental car and drove south about 80 miles to the seaport town of Cadiz, about 20 miles from Chiclana. We had plans to meet in the lobby of a prominent hotel late Friday afternoon, but as we got there several hours early we enjoyed walking along the corniche, looking out to sea, and exploring an old fort. We then turned into the town's old streets, exploring several plazas. We were impressed by the plazas, the public squares that appear every couple of blocks in towns and cities all over Spain, where people gather as houses have little outdoor space of their own. Cadiz is a very pretty town, and the views, both in town and out toward Morocco, near the Strait of Gibraltar, were splendid. (Bonus trivia: its beach stood in for Cuba's in the Bond film "Die Another Day.")

We had a wonderful reunion with Karen, whom Susan knew from elementary school, enjoying tea in the outdoor lounge of the Parador Hotel. Karen had bussed in from Chiclana, so after I retrieved the car and picked them up, Karen directed us to Chiclana where we enjoyed a cool beer overlooking a bay filled with boats resting on sand as the tide was well out. Across the street was the Fishermen's Association (Asociacion de Pescadores), a sort of private club that allowed diners, and we repaired there for a large platter of fried fish for dinner-- delicious.

On Saturday we drove into Chiclana, parked and walked to the crowded public market. I've never seen such beautiful seafood. Oh for a kitchen. Perhaps I should have discussed with Karen first?

We got lucky for lunch, finding a small cafe just outside the market, where we repaired for a plate of fried anchovies and tiny prawns, with a couple of "canyos," 8- to 10 ounce draught beers. Fish and two beers each came to about $7. Though small the bar had a small outdoor area and was teeming with locals. It was delicious.

After lunch we wandered the town a bit more. The pedestrian commercial area was hosting a Spanish travel event, where people could buy tickets to sample regional foods. I didn't fancy a styrofoam plate of paella myself, but it was well-attended by locals, no doubt eager for a change to their usual Saturday ramble.

Later we and Karen drove to Chiclana's wonderful beach and Susan and I did our usual 5 minutes in the water. We later repaired to a beach cafe for some octopus and more beers, enjoying a truly beautiful sunset over the Atlantic.

Andalusia and Madrid

Susan and I were both smitten by Spain.

But first a word about booking holidays: emailing your loved one in the middle of the day having found a great deal on travel, when she's working, isn't the best basis on which to book a vacation, turns out.

However, armed with pre-approved destinations and calendar windows I found a GREAT deal r/t to Madrid on Air  Canada via $550 each, the cheapest fare I've seen to Europe in decades. Perhaps this was aided by leaving on a Tuesday? Or flying just after the busy summer season? Anyway, I pounced. Air Canada turned out to be a great airline and flying through Toronto a delight. Added bonus: we got an entire row of three seats in the middle of the plane for extra room. Exhausted due to my normal pre-travel anxieties, which resulted in a very poor night's sleep the night before we left, I even managed a couple hours of shuteye on the overnight flight.

Spain has excellent super fast trains, and we hit 200 mph en route to Seville, pulling out of Madrid's Atocha Station at 11 am. Turns out that we *could* have caught the 9 am train, so quickly did we exit the airport and quickly get to town via the bus/shuttle (5 euros each, about 30 minutes to the station). Madrid's splendid, regal city gave way to the usual orbital high rises, but soon we were out passing verdant plains, then rugged, dry, mountainous country. After 2 1/2 hours we were in Seville.

We opted for a taxi for the 10-minute drive to our hotel. Our first hotel, El Ray Moro, was a bit of a splurge and charming as all get out, its entry leading to one of those open courtyards, with a fountain in the middle, with three stories of rooms on three sides of the courtyard.
Ours was one flight up, small but cute with a fine foam mattress, which we hit for rest. But travel adrenaline soon kicked in for me so I went out for a walk while Susan rested.

The old center of Seville is a warren of narrow streets-- "kissing lanes"-- that remain cool even in the height of summer. They are, however, challenging to navigate; they didn't know from grids in the 9th century I guess. But I walked off in several directions for a few minutes, returning to the hotel after each brief foray, in an attempt to get the lay of the land. One way brought me to a good spice shop where I engaged the proprietess. I returned there with Susan a bit later and we bought some smoked paprika, saffron, and their version of the Moroccan mix, ras al hanout (which translates as "best in shop," each merchant's propriatory blend, and essential in the soups and tagines we both enjoy).

Spain is not short on bars, cafes and restaurants, and when asked where she enjoyed a drink and a bite the woman in the spice shop sent us around the corner to the wonderful Bodega Santa Cruz, which became our regular spot for a couple of nights. Small, crowded, vibrant, the food was average at best but the conviviality couldn't be beat. (The delightful bartender Angelita asked my name for the tab; I gave her my initials thinking they'd be easier than my name. A week later, when we returned to Seville for one night and beat a path there for some bites and brews I walked in and she shouted "DC!")
It's the only place on the trip that we visited where they did the old-fashioned writing the food and drink tabs directly on the bar with chalk:
Refreshed, we walked, ate, drank in this wonderfully pedestrian, historic neighborhood, awed by the massive Cathedral, built in the 13th century by men who wanted to be remembered as "mad" for their massive ambition. As always, built on the foundation and remains of the mosque it replaced (itself built on the foundations of a Roman temple)-- though incorporating the minaret-- it is indeed gothically gorgeous:
Now daytime:

Some food shots from Thailand and Laos

When I was in my mid-twenties, winding up my Master's Degree with an aim to teaching English overseas, I attended a language teaching convention in Atlanta, GA. My dad (in the English language field himself) put me in touch with experienced teacher pals of his to offer some guidance. Can't recall their names, but I got two pieces of advice from two of them. One told me to skip the language schools and aim instead to work at the college or university level (which I did). Another taught in Thailand. "How's the food there?" I asked him. I don't think I'd ever eaten Thai at that point you see. "Best in the world," he responded. He might have been right.

I'm not sure I remember my first Thai meal after that, but I've scarfed down my share of curries and noodles since then. We're lucky to have several good Thai restaurants near our house. And Thai curries are easy to approximate at home.

But boy did we eat well on this trip.

Market food in Pitsanulok, near train station, from where you catch the bus to Old Sukothai. A selection of dumplings and grilled chicken backs:

Chiang Mai. Two great dishes here, including a slow simmered pork hock flavored with star anise shredded and served with some of its sauce and a hard-boiled egg. I believe this is a Chinese dish in origin. (Tony Bourdain featured this on one of his travel/cooking shows; though we'd seen it it didn't click until we were chatting with a fellow tourist the evening we arrived, seeking recommendations. He told us about it and the female owner who wore a stetson-- that's when we remembered the show. Our drinking mate was unaware the dish was "famous.") 

Below a Chiang Mai curried coconut noodle dish called Khao Soi. Susan had hers with chicken but I couldn't resist the crispy pork belly whenever I saw it. Always topped with fried noodle bits. 

Overnight in Pak Beng, Laos, a small town layover on the Mekong en route to Luang Prabang. Early the next morning I found the local market, selling among other things grilled field rat and these balls of cooked river greens, a lump of which would hearten and enrich any soup or stew. 

Nutella. It's everywhere. Makes a good crepe. Night Market, Luang Prabang.

Lao coffee. Like Vietnamese coffee but not as good. 

Noodles for breakfast in Indochina. Really delicious. 

Fancy new year's eve meal, Tamarind, Luang Prabang, Laos. 

(Thanks for the recommendation Justine and Leslie.)

A favorite of mine: grilled river fish, Luang Prabang Night Market. 

Ventiane, the Lao capital, has many varied restaurants and we were happy for a break from local food after several weeks. 

Here some pate, pizza and baked pasta at French restaurant. 

Of course we started with a pastis each. We're not animals. 

LOVE fake japanese food. All restaurants should offer this in place of mere printed menus. 

More pizza at Via Via in Ventiane, run by two cute French guys. 

We ate very well on the island of Ko Samet, four hours by bus from Bangkok. 

Grilled ribs:

In retrospect a whole kilo of smoky grilled shrimp was probably a tad much. 

Following the trip Susan informed me all meat must now be served on a stick. Grilled pork belly:

Pork belly cooking. They were $.30 each. 

Dried pork with sticky rice. 

Never tried this in Vietnam, finally got around to it in Thailand. Dried cuttlefish, cranked through a tenderizer, then grilled. Like squid jerky. 

Susan's favorite meal of the trip. Fish poached in aromatic lime juice. 

A snack after the ferry back to the mainland, fresh coconut ice cream, served in the coconut shell. 

Back in Bangkok for 3 nights before departure. Fresh doughnuts with coconut dipping sauce. 

Sadly, despite a ban, this atrocity is served all over Chinatown. 

Braised pork with greens. 

Crispy pork belly, ready for slicing and adding to a variety of dishes. 

Served here at this restaurant, with variety of meats ready for serving. 

Our final meal in Bangkok was at this "restaurant."

We try durian for the first time. 

One final shot of delicious crispy pork. 

Our hero.