Spain: Bilbao Guggenheim Museum

One of the many appeals of the train trip we took across northern Spain was the stop at Bilbao, the largest of three major cities in the Basque country, situated on the banks of the tidal Nervión river. In the 1300’s the nobleman Diego López de Haro, Lord of Vizcaya established the town on the right bank of the river opposite a small fishing village on the other side . With only three streets that formed the centre of the new settlement, the city grew slowly but steadily, into what is now known as the Seven streets or Siete Calles that make up the heart of the Old Quarter of this mercantile town.

In time and thanks to the Spanish Crown’s grant that gave Bilbao the right to be the main export port for Merino wool from the Castille to northern European cities, Bilbao became the most important commercial and financial hub of the Spanish north coast. During the industrial revolution in the 19th century the development of strong mining, steel and shipbuilding industries attracted a wave of migration to Bilbao. Throughout this period up to the early twentieth century, Bilbao experienced heavy industrialisation which made it the centre of the second-most industrialised region of Spain and certainly the wealthiest. Banks and insurance companies were established enhancing its capacity for business and trade. However, in the mid-20th century the economic slump, hand in hand with the excesses of urbanisation and industrialisation took its toll on the city that was in danger of going into oblivion. Something had to be done but it wasn’t until 1991 when the modernisation of this municipality started taking shape. An urban renewal effort to take the industrialised town into a centre for tourism, technology and other services was in the drawing board.

At the heart of this transformation was a modern cultural triangle made up of the Guggenheim museum, the new library of the University of Deusto and the auditorium of the University of the Basque Country along the Bilbao river, or the Estuary of Bilbao which lies at the common mouth of the rivers Nervion, Ibaizabal and Cadagua, that drain most of Biscay and part of Alava in the Basque Country.

In 1981, the Basque government proposed to fund a modern museum to be erected in the old port area district. This idea was brought to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation with the intention that the foundation would manage it for a one-time fee and subsidy. American architect Frank Gehry was given the task of designing one of the most important buildings in modern architecture. On completion in 1997, it signalled the coming of age of the former mercantile town into the modern era and changed the image of Bilbao completely. Through Gehry’s bold and dramatic design, the Guggenheim museum, transformed the city, physically and psychologically.
GN from bridge
This renowned building made of titanium, glass and limestone is an interesting, audacious and innovative mix of art, space and architecture. Its sculpture like structure provides the ideal environment for the modern and contemporary art from various Spanish and international artists that it houses. If its intention was to capture attention, this building certainly caught mine. I was more interested in the building’s space and design, the giant Puppy by Jeff Koons in front of the museum made of bedding plants renewed each spring and “Maman” the 30 feet high, mammoth spider sculpture of Louise Bourgeois , outside the museum than the art exhibited in the museum.

Until then, Bilbao was a name and memory I associated with my childhood but the visit to Bilbao and the museum enriched my experience. This was one of the major highlights of our trip to northern Spain.

More on: Railway to Heaven (On board the luxury train in Spain) ISBN: 9781468970203

Available at: Barnes & Noble and Google Books

chorizos copy

Chorizo de Bilbao

In my youth,Sunday lunch was always a family affair. The heart of our home was the kitchen where it was customary for the girls to learn the basics of cooking. Instead of playing with Barbie dolls, we were busy washing vegetables, slicing and dicing various ingredients, stirring the pot and remembering the step-by-step method of how each dish was prepared. This was my grandmother’s decree. Girls have to learn how to cook. Along with my mother, my aunts and sisters, I dutifully spent my Sunday mornings cooking. In hindsight, this experience was my initiation to food appreciation.

As rituals go, after mass each Sunday, we unquestioningly donned our aprons and assembled in the kitchen, which always had appetising whiffs of crushed garlic and chopped onions sautéed in olive oil. This, amongst the aroma of pork or chicken slowly roasting in the oven wafting throughout the house was the norm on Sundays. It was also time to listen to the latest scandals and gossip as well as catching up with family news. We always anticipated these moments while the pervading smell of food whet our appetites for lunch that was yet to come. It wasn’t just a matter of learning to cook. My grandmother made sure we understood why the flavours of her dishes were such while preaching the merits of choosing the right ingredients for every recipe we were made to learn.

One of our favourites was her callos– (Spanish stew of tripe). It was during the preparation of this dish that I often heard the word Bilbao. At the time, as far as I was concerned, Bilbao was synonymous to the ubiquitous Spanish chorizo, a spicy semi-cured sausage that came in a green tin, packed in lard. I recall my grandmother saying repeatedly that the chorizo de Bilbao was an important secret ingredient to her version of the Madrileño tripe stew. My familiarity then of the chorizo itself was limited to how it looked and tasted and it wasn’t until years later that I discovered a great deal more about the sausage and Bilbao, the 14th century Basque municipality in northern Spain. Of course now Bilbao is known as a modern urban town and a cultural hub in northern Spain with the advent of its iconic titanium covered Guggenheim museum designed by Frank Gehry. Naturally, it was on our travel bucket list and when we saw an opportunity to visit Bilbao, we jumped at it.

In Spain, Ferrocarriles Espaňoles de Vía Estrecha (FEVE) or narrow gauge railroads, now owned by RENFE launched El Transcantábrico-Gran Lujo in 2011. It is the luxurious and exclusive train that traverses “Green Spain” between San Sebastian to Santiago de Compostela and vice-versa. The itinerary with a stop in Bilbao appealed the most and was one of the major reasons why we decided to be reckless and join this gastronomic and cultural tour.

As it turned out, there were so many more reasons why this train was special and admittedly….decadent! My debut travel ebook – Railway to Heaven (On board the luxury train in Spain) ISBN: 9781468970203, attempts to express the numerous experiences we had on this trip (available at Barnes & Noble and Google Books).

In Bilbao, I had a mission. Chorizo de Bilbao was on top of the list so, when the time came for us to explore, I set off with determination to find this chorizo of my childhood.

The limited time I had searching for the green tin of chorizos ended in disappointment. In fact, I was crushed! In every deli we went to, there was the usual perplexed look on the shopkeepers’ faces when I enquired “Venden chorizo de Bilbao?” I soon found out that my grandmother’s secret ingredient was unheard of in Bilbao. How can this be? Months later, a celebrity chef in Manila informed me that my romantic notion of this chorizo was based on marketing and image rather than fact. I was grossly misinformed. The chorizo de Bilbao is in fact a descriptive name coined by a food manufacturer in the USA for the tinned Spanish chorizo. And for some reason it has become popular among the Filipinos of Spanish origin who reside in the Philippines. Nursing my disappointment to this very day, I would like to think that regardless of the provenance of this special chorizo, it was an impetus for wanting to visit Bilbao and experience what has to be one of the best trips we have ever made to date and for me will be more than just my grandmother’s favourite chorizo.


Dallas and Fort Worth Texas

My mental images of Dallas Texas were inspired by the set of ‘Southfork ranch’ and the Ewing brothers. As an avid follower of the high rating TV series ‘Dallas’ during the 80’s, I was always keen to visit Dallas before I get too old to travel. A couple of years ago, a re-make of this series was created but was short lived. I guess the storyline of powerful families feuding over rich oilfields no longer appeal to young viewers. I was a fan of JR and Bobby Ewing so when Qantas decided to make Dallas Fort Worth a major route from Sydney Australia, my husband and I were easily enticed to book a return ticket despite it being the longest non-stop flight in the world, a total of nearly 16 hours from Sydney. We also decided to make Dallas the starting point of our first American train experience, a ‘vacation by rail’ on Amtrak.

Dallas is located in North Texas and the largest inland metropolitan in the USA. It has the distinction of having George W Bush as its 46th governor (from 1995 to 2000) and Dallas is where a homage to the former US president was established. Dallas is also the infamous place where President John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Dallas and Fort Worth owe their development and growth to the construction of major railroad lines to service the cotton, cattle and oil industries around the county. Everything about Dallas and Texas for that matter is vast. It is spread out with major interstate highways converging and looping around and into the city.

We were keen to find out what Dallas Texas had to offer. For our first visit to this southern state, we were booked by Vacations by Rail at the Hilton Dallas Lincoln Centre. The hotel was a good choice as it was a short drive from the airport and was a convenient place to get over our jet lag and the long haul from Sydney. The 4 star Dallas Hilton hotel boasts of the usual amenities one expects from this type of lodging. It is also a short walk to the Galleria shopping mall and 10.9-mile(17.54 km) drive to downtown Dallas. Furthermore, Amtrak Dallas Union station is close by, about 10.2 miles (16.4 km) from the hotel. To make it easy for their guests, the hotel provides shuttle services to the Galleria and the belt line , which was in fact full of good restaurants such as Chamberlain’s steak and chop house.

Given we had limited time in Dallas, as soon as we checked in, we headed to the Galleria, a big shopping and dining mall, in search of good Texan food. A sumptuous meal of the fabled American steak would have been a good start but being a bit disoriented with the change in time zone, we wanted to start with something lighter. Besides, isn’t Texas known for Tex Mex food? The first restaurant we saw at the Galleria that looked inviting was Mi Cocina . On their menu was a selection of classic Tex Mex food prepared and served with an innovative twist. But what is Tex Mex and is it different from Mexican food? According to our ebullient waitress, Tex Mex is a fusion of Mexican and American cuisine. It is basically the type of food one finds in America particularly in the southwestern sates north of the (Mexican) border. The major differences between classic (and regional) Mexican cuisine and Tex Mex food would be the heavy use of ingredients such as shredded cheese, beef, pork and spices such as cumin and the cooking or preparation time on the latter . It would seem that there is a lot more to the preparation of traditional Mexican cuisines to the Tex Mex version. In fact a lot of dishes identified as ‘Mexican food’ is Tex Mex. Typical examples are, chilli con carne and fajita. The evolution of this style of cooking was born out of heritage and the need to adapt to local taste preference and ingredients. Tex Mex has its origins to the early *Mexican settlers in Texas who were mostly from Northern Mexico or the Spanish settlers when Texas was still a Spanish colony.These were Spanish or Mexicans who lived in Texas before it became a republic. To this day Tex Mex dishes continue to evolve but it’s interesting to note that in the earlier days, out of necessity, the Mexican cooks or chefs liberally used beef, which was also the preference of Texan Gringo ranchers who raised and traded cattle so naturally, beef was an abundant staple. In fact even today , beef is hardly used in Mexico.

*Tejano culture, a Texan of Criollo Spanish or Mexican heritage

Having said that, at Mi CModelo beerocina ( a chain of family restaurant with locations in Dallas, Fort Worth, Tulsa, Houston and Atlanta) for my first Tex Mex meal in Dallas, I opted for the Tilapia Veracruz; fresh Tilapia fillet sautéed with garlic and lime served with sliced avocado, vegetables and arroz verde ( green rice) with a side of their house made Veracruz sauce. It was delicious and just what I needed, washed down with a couple of glasses of frozen Margarita. It was sort of mid afternoon and my rationale then was it had to be cocktail hour somewhere in the world. Besides, I was certain we were going to just ‘crash’ after this foray as soon as we got back to our hotel. My husband had the shrimp brochette; grilled jumbo shrimp (or prawns as we call it here in Australia) stuffed with Fresh Jalapeno and Jack cheese, wrapped in smoked bacon, served with bean soup, rice and guacamole. Modelo beer was the choice of beverage with his meal.
We strolled around the Galleria to digest our food and try and get into the time zone but alas, an early night beckoned when we could no longer fight the tiredness from the long flight.

The list of tourist ‘must sees’ in Dallas and surrounds is quite long. We really only had time for the legendary Ewing mansion, Southfork Ranch, about 25 miles northeast of Dallas. Obsessed as I was with the TV series, I wanted to see where the series was filmed. It didn’t disappoint. The Ewing mansion was what I imagined it to be and there were lots of other activities and even rodeo shows.

Now that we’ve had glimpses of Dallas, we wanted our final evening to focus on food once again. The famous Texas Steak was on our sights so with the help of the hotel’s concierge, the shuttle bus dropped us off at Chamberlain’s Steak and Chophouse on Beltline Rd, known to be the best steak house in Dallas. Owned by Richard Chamberlain, who is considered one of America’s leading chefs, we knew from the moment we walked into the restaurant, that the evening would be special. The ambience was reminiscent of many fine dining establishments , the service impeccable and the food and wine were excellent. It would be one of our 4 star rated meal during this train trip in America.

Dallas food

calle real

New Orleans, Louisiana- The Big Easy

When we decided to explore America by train, the first stopover on our Amtrak train journey from Dallas was New Orleans. The city that typhoon Katrina devastated in 2005 was always on our- ‘must visit before it’s too late’- list. Celebrity travel writer Paul Theroux wouldn’t have approved of our planned itinerary as it was really jam-packed and resembled a typical ‘tourist junket’ of things to see in 3 days. A traveller would, as Theroux says in his books, observe, blend in with the locals and learn as much about the destination and its soul. Well, in this instance, we didn’t want to pretend. We wanted to see it all in 3 days with ‘food’ first and foremost on our minds .We figured this would surely reveal what New Orleans’s complex heart and soul are made of. Layers and layers of history and heritage are reflected in food and its preparation, right? We wanted to take a few bites of typical New Orleans food and guzzle their beverages to have some insight on this town’s eclectic and fascinating heritage.

traces of New Orlean's French and Spanish colonisers

traces of New Orlean’s French and Spanish colonisers

After settling in at the Doubletree by Hilton, we wandered off to Bourbon St. in the old part of the city otherwise known as the French Quarter. Notorious for its hedonistic attractions: bars, strip clubs and so close to the red light district on Basin St, we would have loved to be right in the heart of the French Quarter for the Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) , the annual carnival celebrated, the day before ash Wednesday. But as we were there in early Spring, we missed out but coincidentally, the annual New Orleans Jazz festival was starting on our last day there which kind of makes up for the missed Mardi Gras opportunity. What luck!

early evening -Bourbon St, New Orleans

early evening -Bourbon St, New Orleans

A friend recommended we start the bar hopping at the historic Sazerac Bar, Grand Roosevelt Hotel. The setting and décor is homage to the magnificence and opulence of classic days gone by. The Sazerac bar is named after what many think is America’s first mixed drink, created by Antoine Peychaud way back in 1838 from his favourite French brandy, Sazerac de-Forge et fils. Sazerac is the designated cocktail ‘must have’ when in New Orleans and synonymous to this party town. Its main ingredient is of course the brandy or cognac but some bars substitute rye whiskey. It is mixed with sugar cube, and Pechaud’s bitters in a glass swirled with absinthe or Herbsaint…the result which many say is interesting. (the jury is still out on that)

We were then in search of a meal and headed straight to Court of Two Sisters primarily because we wanted to experience the ambience of this historic property and dine al fresco in what is said to be New Orleans’ largest outdoor dining courtyard. The building itself has a long history dating back to the 18th century and the restaurant is named after two sisters who belonged to a prominent Creole family.

Court of Two Sisters

Court of Two Sisters

The Creole seafood gumbo on the menu caught our eye, a stew of seafood served on rice. What gives this food a distinct flavour are the mixture of spices such as sassafras and bay leaves and the okra, a vegetable from West Africa which were introduced to the Americas by the West African slaves. For our first meal in New Orleans, we shared this as starters followed by the Corn fried Louisiana Catfish for me and the Charboiled Tenderloin of Beef served with marchand de vin and béarnaise sauces, potato mash and haricorts verts for my husband. I thought my catfish was typical New Orleans food more so than my husband’s tenderloin beef. Nevertheless, enjoying the dinner was not a big ask. Who could complain when we dined in a superb setting; relaxed by the soothing sound of the water in the fountain, entranced by the fragrance of flowering shrubs under the trees which were adorned with fairylights. The ambience was just fantastic! The French Quarter reminded us of its many distinct French heritage but caught glimpses of Spanish too. The food and drink we’ve had so far had the eclectic characteristics of the colonial past of New Orleans peppered with the distinct influence of the African slaves bought to the Americas in the early 17th century.

Next on our list was breakfast at the historic Café du Monde known for its beignet and chicory flavoured coffee. Once again, the undeniable French influence was evident insofar as Beignets are square-cut pieces of yeast dough heavily dusted with powdered sugar, much like donuts but do not have a hole in them. This treat was introduced by the Acadians, (descendants of the French colonialists) and has become somewhat of another ‘must try’ when in New Orleans. The chicory flavoured coffee by tradition must be served ‘au lait’ (although some have been know to order this ‘black’) and according to the Café du Monde, coffee was also introduced to the Americas by the French and sometime during the American Civil War, they added the roasted and ground root of the endive plant into the coffee to soften its bitter taste. This resulted to the unique blend of coffee and chicory.

Beignet Cafe

Fortified with these, we explored the city, in and around Jackson Square, taking in the party atmosphere and enjoying the music from different buskers.
Most interesting was this man.

Bourbon Street Busker

Bourbon Street Busker

We then ventured on to Canal Street and hopped on a cruise along the (muddy) Mississippi River aboard the Steam Boat Natchez, with one of the remaining four steamboats with the celebrated ‘Steam Calliope’. Considered a uniquely American instrument and linked to steamboats since 1865, the ‘Steam Calliope’s ‘music came from the steam plumes shooting from each whistle played. It aint jazz or rock n roll, but this quaint sound added to a distinct atmosphere to our cruise.

Our concierge was kind enough to get us a table at Arnaud’s that evening . Located at the French Quarter just a few meters away from Bourbon St, this fine establishment boasts of classic Creole food, allowing diners to choose from any of their 3 dining areas; the more relaxed atmosphere at their Jazz Bistro, fine dining at the main dining room or simply sipping cocktails at their French 75 Bar. We chose to dine casual at the Jazz Bistro and was entertained by live jazz music. After all, isn’t New Orleans the birthplace of jazz? (Memphis and Chicago will disagree). But we really came for the food. We couldn’t go past the ‘Arnaud’s signature dish’, a starter of Shrimp Arnaud , marinated shrimp in tangy Creole remoulade sauce and mains of Speckled Trout Meunière for me and the Roast Louisiana Quail Elzey for my husband. Both didn’t disappoint, our dinner was delicious! We skipped dessert to make room for an intended night cap at the Old Absinthe House.

Old Absinthe House

On our last day, we shunned the organised tours. Instead we took the streetcar to have glimpses of the past, of days gone by. There are 3 streetcar lines operating in New Orleans: St. Charles, Canal Street, and the Riverfront. Our interest was in the antebellum mansions so it was the St Charles line for us. The 13.2-mile route (21.2 km) from Carondelet at Canal Street in the Central Business district through to the oldest section of uptown New Orleans and through St Charles Avenue can only be described as ‘grand’. Populating the St. Charles Avenue has got to be the most superb collection of historic mansions in the South of the USA. Lined beautifully with old trees covered with Spanish moss, St Charles Avenue stretches from Uptown to Downtown . The surrounds and antebellum houses do take one back to the glorious epoch of 19th century New Orleans.

Old World New Orleans

Old World New Orleans

It was indeed a sight to behold and later, while I devoured my Po- Boy for lunch, still impressed with what we saw, images of the likes of Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler came to mind. I couldn’t shake of this imagery for some reason.

The quintessential Po-Boy, a typical New Orleans sandwich has a history that dates back to the Great Depression. Legend has it that during that era, enterprising streetcar workers who were on strike opened a sandwich shop for a means to survive. They used cut potatoes and roast beef gravy for fillings at the time. However this popular New orleans sandwich has evolved since then. Ask any native of New Orleans and he will tell you that the Po-Boy is the best sandwich in the world. Yet , what is sacred about the Po-Boy is the quality of the bread. It has to be crunchy and crusty on the outside and soft in the inside. Add the filling of whatever you may fancy, may it be fried shrimp, ousters, catfish, soft shell crab, or roast beef, the finale will have to be the “fixin’s” – pickles, hot sauce, lettuce, mayo, etc. We were advised to order and eat the Po-boys the way locals do and that is ‘dressed’ or ‘with all of the toppings.

The final evening was spent at the Snug Harbour Jazz Bistro along Frenchman St. We could have gone to the famous Preservation Hall but wanting to see and feel the heartbeat of the famed ‘hub of jazz and culture’ in New Orleans, we chose to walk to our destination. The party atmosphere was palpable and felt as though the hype on the heavily touted jazz festival was paying off. Pity we were only going to witness glimpses of it as we were set to take our train to Memphis the next morning.

French Quarters New Orleans

Mississippi River