Day 1 in Amsterdam: Walking & Eating!

The week before we went to Amsterdam, Kevin met up with a friend who had visited the city multiple times. The friend was insistent that we seek out and eat an Indonesian dish called “rijsttafel”. Naturally, we did our research, and it was the first thing we did (after checking into our hotel, and allotting time for me to have a 2 hour nap).

Once I was feeling a bit more rested, we struck out on a walk through the city, taking in the beautiful buildings, canals and streetscapes (in our 6 days, it never got old). We ended our walk at Restaurant Jun, a well-reviewed Indonesian restaurant.

For those of you who (like me) didn’t pay enough attention in history class, here’s some background on Indonesian cuisine and rijsttafel, courtesy of our friends at Wikipedia:

The Dutch colonial feast, the rijsttafel, was created to provide a festive and official type of banquet that would represent the multi-ethnic nature of the Indonesian archipelago. Dishes were assembled from many of the far flung regions of Indonesia, where many different cuisines exist, often determined by ethnicity and culture of the particular island or island group — from Javanese favourite satehtempeh and seroendeng, to vegetarian cuisine gado-gado and lodeh with sambal lalab from Batavia and Preanger. From spicy rendang and gulai curry from the Minangkabau region in Sumatra, to East Indies ubiquitous dishes nasi gorengsoto ayam, and kroepoek crackers. Also Indonesian dishes from hybrid influences; such as Chinese babi ketjaploempia, and bamie to European beef smoor. And there are many others from the hundreds of inhabited islands, which contain more than 300 regional and ethnic language groups.

During its centuries of popularity in Dutch East Indies, lines of servants or sarong-clad waitresses ceremoniously served the marathon meal on platters laden with steaming bowls of fragrant foods. The first to be served was a cone-shaped pile of rice on a large platter, which the server placed in the center of the table. The servers then surrounded the rice platter with as many as 40 small bowls holding meat and vegetable dishes as well as condiments. 

Brought back to the Netherlands by former colonials and exiled Indonesians and Indo-Europeans (Eurasians) after Indonesia gained its independence in 1945, the rijsttafel was predominantly popular with Dutch families with colonial roots. On the other hand, when Indonesia proclaimed its independence in 1945, nationalist sentiment promoted the rejection of Dutch colonial culture and customs, including the flamboyant rice table. Today, the rice table has practically disappeared from Indonesia’s restaurants and is served only by a handful of fine-dining restaurants in Indonesia.

More of a banquet than a regular meal, the rijsttafel has survived Indonesia’s independence, composed as it is of indigenous Indonesian dishes, and is served in some mainstream restaurants in Indonesia. A typical rijsttafel will have several dining tables covered with different dishes; while in some fancy settings in Indonesia, each dish may be served by a separate waitress. Since about 1990, Indonesian food has become part of a mainstream interest in South East Asian cuisine, and there has been a proliferation of Indonesian restaurants in the Netherlands.

Despite its popularity in the Netherlands and abroad, the rijsttafel is rarely found in Indonesia. That is probably because most Indonesian meals consist of rice accompanied by only one, two or three dishes, mostly consisting of lauk (fish, chicken, meat, egg, or other source of protein), sayur(vegetable), and other side dishes. To consume more than that number of dishes at once (a rijsttafel might range from seven to forty dishes) is considered too extravagant and too expensive. The closest versions to rice table dishes readily available in Indonesia are local nasi Padang and nasi campur. However, in Indonesian restaurants around the world, especially in the Netherlands and South Africa, the rijsttafel is still popular.

So, um, now knowing the history of the dish, it actually sounds like a pretty gross tradition. As an ignorant tourist, I definitely assumed that the rijsttafel was more of an authentic Indonesian concept, but in fact it’s an authentic colonial concept. When we travel, we generally aim to experience the local culture, and given that colonialism is an important part of Dutch (and European) history, rijsttafel clearly fits the bill. And this is why it’s important to know your history, so you can (among other things) better appreciate and understand your modern experiences.

As for the dinner itself, it was top notch. The food was both delicious and beautiful. Our version of the rijsttafel included 12 different dishes, plus 2 more for dessert:

  • Lumpia goreng (fried spring rolls with vegetables, chicken & a fresh salsa with coriander leaves)
  • Rendang (beef tenderloin in a Sumatran sauce)
  • Ayam rica bersantan (chicken in a red curry with kunyit and pandan leaves)
  • Saté ayam (chicken satay with peanut sauce)
  • Jukut urap (stirfried vegetables Balinese style)
  • Acar campur (fresh pickled vegetables)
  • Nasi putih (white jasmine rice)
  • Udang laksa (gambas in a red curry from West Java with 10 spices)
  • Ikan pesmol à la Jun (seabass in a sweet-sour sauce with basil)
  • Saté kambing (lamb satay with sweet soy sauce and red onion)
  • Pisang goreng (fried banana with palm sugar sirop)
  • Kue dadar (crêpe with Javanese sugar and grated coconut with a scoop)

The team at Restaurant Jun did a fantastic job. From the service to the food to the perfect little bathrooms, we had a wonderful dinner there, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for great Dutch-Indonesian food in the Jordaan area of Amsterdam.

Photos below!


In Honour of the Mitsubishi

The somewhat unnamed guest (or host, rather) on all of our Portugal adventures was the purple and silver Mitsubishi, the pick-up truck of Kevin’s late grandfather, Avô Eugenio.

This mammoth of a truck represents countless memories for Kevin and his brother, who spent their summers in the Algarve with their grandparents.

Until recently, Avo Maria kept the Mitsubishi in her garage, where it took up approximately 95% of available space. I’ve never seen a truck-to-garage ratio like it, and I was impressed both times I watched Kevin park it back in there.

During our time in Portugal, we also made our fair share of memories in this truck. A thoroughly Algarvieu vehicle, we’re not sure it had even seen rain until we road-tripped north of Lisbon with my brother, Tyler.

It was the driver of many interesting off road adventures, allowing us to explore and appreciate the Algarve in all of its glory. It took us across the Algarve, and north into Lisbon several times. Its rear gearing wasn’t exactly highway tolerable, so we always took the slower country roads all through the Alentejo. Thanks to the truck, we know an outrageous amount of back roads and countryside routes.

Through most of our time in Portugal, Kevin drove me everywhere in the Mitsubishi – roadtrips, dinners, beach days, and more. When Kevin’s best friend Mark came to visit, I actually learned to drive a manual transmission so that I could chauffeur the two of them to and from the Algarve night life.

My adventures with Kevin and Mark popularized the phrase “give it the beans” in my life, and also resulted in one of the funniest events I ever witnessed in the Algarve: Kevin and Mark soaking wet eating and drinking out of the back of the Mitsubishi as Albufeira morning traffic began. After a night at a Kiss Night Club foam party, we couldn’t go home without snacks. So I parked the Mitsubishi (a foot away from the curb) and they turned the back of the truck into a dining room. I’ve never seen two people laugh so hard in my life.

This amazingly pristine vehicle, a 1995 Mitsubishi pick-up truck, was recently sold to a British expat. And so ends our adventures with the wonderful purple and silver Mitsubishi. Pretty sad, actually, but we’re both carrying a ton of memories forward.

Photos below of our adventures in the truck:


We’re in Amsterdam!

Last week was my birthday, and we celebrated by getting on a plane and heading to Amsterdam. Beginning in the fall, I’ll be going back to school, starting a part-time MBA program. With work and school, we realized our schedule would be pretty tight, so we wanted to get in one last vacation before my return to school. Considering that our Madrid trip feels like it was yesterday, I am a very, very fortunate person.

And so here we are in Amsterdam! We’re getting much more sleep here than we did in Spain, but we’re doing just as much walking, and seeing just as many museums. Below are some early photos, and I’ll be working on writing more while we’re here (and of course while we’re back).

So far, we’re having a great time. Amsterdam has a magical quality that I’ve never quite experienced, and just being here is surreal. See below for a few photos from our first afternoon in Amsterdam!

Days 6 and 7 in Spain – Exploring the Festival of Patios in Cordoba!

The old streets of Cordoba are small, but they felt extra packed while we were visiting. Why? Because we visited during the Cordoba Patio Festival!

Here’s some background on the festival from

The Patio contests is sponsored by the Córdoba City Hall and began in 1918. But to really understand why a contest of this type was created in Córdoba you must know something about the local architecture.

Due to a hot, dry climate homes in Córdoba were built with a central patio even back in the days of the Romans. This tradition was continued by the Moors and persists in many homes even today. Filling the central patio with plants and water features has always been a way to keep local homes cool. But, thanks to human creativity and ingenuity, patio decoration ended up taking on a life all its own and at some point, someone realised that these hidden treasures were just too good to be kept tucked away behind heavy doors and iron grates. So, once a year, the doors open and everyone is invited in to see the wonders of Córdoba’s patios.

These patios not only offer a visual feast of colourful flowers, stone mosaics and ceramic decorations, but also bring out the classic scents of Córdoba: jasmine and orange blossom mixed with a myriad of scents from the many other flowers and plants that bring the city – and this festival – alive.

Because it’s Europe, there’s a limited schedule for when you can view the patios. Naturally, we missed most of our patio viewing opportunities.

Of course, we didn’t realize that. All day, as we walked around, we’d peek through a gate to view the decorative flowers in people’s patios. We giggled past people lined up to visit patios and explored what we considered to be the ‘undiscovered secrets’ of the Patio Festival.

Only later, once we met up with the rest of our group, did we realize that we had not visited a single officially sanctioned patio, and all those we had visited were not actually participating (which is pretty amazing to me, because they were truly well decorated). Our group then made one stop on the ‘official’ tour, so we could see what we’d been missing.

We wrapped up Sunday evening with dinner by the waterfront, followed by drinks in the ‘garden’ section at the bar upstairs. We went home around 2am, and then got up at 6am to catch the train to Madrid, and then our flight home.

It was a truly tiring few days, but so much fun. I would recommend visiting Madrid to anyone. It’s a great city, with lots to explore, and felt very safe. Cordoba was also pretty special, but the real highlight was spending so much time with my friend, and honorary baby sister, Zoya.

I’ve said it before, but it’s still true that nothing is more fun than seeing familiar friends in unfamiliar places. Making some great new friends made the weekend even more memorable. We’re all still making jokes together in our Whatsapp groups, and we’ll be remembering this trip for a long time to come.

A huge thank you goes out to Zoya and Shripal for being amazing tour guides and providing us with supremely detailed and thoughtful travel guides. Seeing Madrid through their eyes was the best thing about our trip.

Days 6 and 7 in Spain – Visiting the Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba (the Mezquita)

The entire Iberian peninsula (inhabited for 1.2 million years) is full of complex history, and for a long time Cordoba was at the centre of some of the most significant events in the region.

The Iberian peninsula (essentially the land that makes up Spain and Portugal) was inhabited by Romans in 112 BCE, and served as a resource centre for much of their empire (Wikipedia). The peninsula was conquered and re-conquered by many different groups after that time, but the glory of Cordoba began in 711 CE:

In 711, a Muslim army invaded the Visigothic Kingdom in Hispania. Under Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Islamic army landed at Gibraltar and, in an eight-year campaign, occupied all except the northern kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula in the Umayyad conquest of HispaniaAl-Andalus(Arabicالإندلس‎‎, tr. al-ʾAndalūs, possibly “Land of the Vandals”),[24][25] is the Arabic name given to what is today southern Spain by its Muslim Berber and Arab occupiers.

From the 8th–15th centuries, only the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula was incorporated into the Islamic world and became a center of culture and learning, especially during the Caliphate of Córdoba, which reached its height under the rule of Abd-ar-Rahman III[citation needed]. The Muslims, who were initially Arabs and Berbers, included some local converts, the so-called Muladi. The Muslims were referred to by the generic name, Moors.

The Wikipedia page on Cordoba goes into greater detail:

Córdoba is a city in Andalusia, southern Spain, and the capital of the province of Córdoba. It was a Roman settlement. It was conquered by Muslim armies in the eighth century, and then became the capital of the Islamic Emirate and then Caliphate of Córdoba, including most of the Iberian Peninsula.

Caliph Al Hakam II opened many libraries in addition to the many medical schools and universities which existed at the time, making Córdoba a centre for education. During these centuries, Córdoba became a society ruled by Muslims.[6] It returned to Christian rule in 1236, during the Reconquista. Today it is a moderately sized modern city; its population in 2011 was about 330,000.[7] The historic centre was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In May 766, it was chosen as the capital of the independent Muslim emirate of al-Andalus, later a Caliphate itself. By 800, the megacity of Cordoba supported over 200,000 residents – that is 0.1 per cent share of global population then. During the caliphate apogee (1000 AD), Córdoba had a population of roughly 500,000 inhabitants,[17] though estimates range between 350,000 and 1,000,000. In the 10th and 11th centuries, Córdoba was one of the most advanced cities in the world as well as a great cultural, political, financial and economic centre.[18] The Great Mosque of Córdoba dates back to this time. Upon a change of rulers, though, the situation changed quickly. “The vizier al-Mansur–the unofficial ruler of al-Andalus from 976 to 1002—burned most of the books on philosophy to please the Moorish clergy; most of the others were sold off or perished in the civil strife not long after.[19]

In the ninth and tenth centuries, Córdoba was “one of the most important cities in the history of the world.” In it, “Christians and Jews were involved in the Royal Court and the intellectual life of the city.”[20]

During the Spanish Reconquista, Córdoba was captured by King Ferdinand III of Castile on 29 June 1236, after a siege of several months. The city was divided into 14 colaciones, and numerous new church buildings were added.

The city declined, especially after Renaissance times. In the 18th century it was reduced to just 20,000 inhabitants. The population and economy started to increase only in the early 20th century.

The above-mentioned “Great Mosque of Cordoba”, the Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba in Spanish, is the main event. Cordoba is a relatively small town now, and its skyline is dominated by the the Mezquita.

On Sunday, visiting the Mezquita was our main goal, but we started out with a long walk. We stopped by a bunch of churches, and we also saw the site of an old Roman Temple. We also stopped for a delicious lunch at Norte y Sur Taberna Selecta.

Our walk took us through the ruins of the original entrance to Cordoba under Roman rule, and around the walls of the old city centre. We didn’t plan ahead, and most of the small churches and museums we wanted to go to were closed on Sunday afternoon. However, the Mezquita was opened, and in we went!

This video is in Spanish, but it visually gives an understanding of how the Mezquita expanded over time.

Here’s what we learned from the (extremely high quality) guide that they gave out at the entrance:

This space has been home to a collection of buildings among which was thh Visigoth Basilic of San Vincente (mid-sixth century), which became the city’s main Christian temple. With the arrival of the Muslims the area was divided and used by both communities.

Abd al-Rahman I built the original Mosque (786-788) in response to the growing population. Its floor plan includes eleven naves standing perpendicular to the qibla wall, with the central one being higher and wider than the side ones. Unlike other Muslim oratories, the qibla wall is not pointing towards Mecca, but instead faces south.

The period of prosperity experienced under the government of Abd al-Rahman II led to the first enlargement (833-848). The prayer hall was extended with the addition of eight south-facing naves.

Much later, in the year 951, the caliph Abd al-Rahman III began construction of a new minaret. This reached the height of 40 metres and inspired the minarets in the Mosques in Seville and Marrakesh.

The Umayyad Caliphate saw the continuation of the period of political, social, and cultural splendour which led to the city replacing Damascus in terms of importance. Al-Hakam II carried out the second enlargement (962-966), the most creative of all.

The final of the enlargements (991) was a demonstration of power by Almanzor, hajib of the caliph Hisham II. In this phase the site was extended towards the east by adding eight new naves.

With the conquest of Cordoba in 1236 the Aljama was consecrated as a Catholic church, installing the main altar in the former skylight of Al-Hakam II. In 1489 adaptation of works were carried out to reflect the new religion with the construction of a Main Chapel. Once the Transept was completed in 1607 this space became known as the Villaviciosa Chapel.

It was Bishop Alonso Manrique who ordered the building of the transept (1523-1606). The construction process was begun by Hernan Ruiz I in an imaginative way, combining the caliphal naves with the transept in the form of lateral naves. From the outside, the transept’s brickwork gives the building an appearance of verticality which contrasts with the horizontal sensation provided by the Mosque.

You enter the Mezquita through the walled orange tree garden. It’s a beautiful and peaceful space, and a great lead-in for the Mezquita itself, which is an enveloping and calming building. Walking around, it’s frequently not possible to the end of the space, and yet the entire building is open concept, so the space feels endless. The scale of it all was remarkable, and unlike anything we’d seen so far.

The Mezquita is at the heart of Cordoba’s history, and if you’re lucky to visit this city, it’s a definite must-see!

After our time at the Mezquita, Kevin and I went to meet up with the rest of the group. We spent a couple of hours snacking and enjoying wine and each other’s company at a cafe in a plaza/square.

To end the day, our group headed out to cross the bridge and see the view of the city from the other side of the Roman bridge. Our second day was wrapping up, and while we didn’t get to see everything, but we felt like we had seen enough to appreciate the magic of Cordoba.

Many, many photos below from our hours-long walk through the city.


Days 6 and 7 in Spain – Cordoba for the Weekend!

In my experience, people of means who live in Europe tend to spend a lot of time travelling on the weekends. In an area that has so much concentrated history, plus cheap flights and train tickets, a weekend away is the common tradition. And from keeping in touch with Zoya, I knew already that she and her friends, and her partner Shripal, often organized weekend group trips. It just so happened that they organized one such trip while we were in Madrid, and so we tagged along!

Because my work schedule was so flexible, Kevin and I didn’t do weekend trips while we were in Portugal, so this was our first experience of what I consider to be a mainstay of middle to upper middle class European culture.

Kevin and I have a good routine that we follow when travelling, and I was admittedly nervous to jump into a 10 person travel group, but we had a really great time and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Spain has one of the most thorough rail networks in the world, including several high speed rail corridors. This makes it easy for those living in Spain to get from city to city. Zoya and Shripal and their friends have thus visited many of the historic towns and cities in Spain, and Cordoba was next on their ‘to-do’ list.

Logistically, Shripal lead the way. He researched food options and booked our reservations. He also managed “the kitty”, our group fund. We all put an equal amount of cash into the kitty at the start of our trip, and all group meals and drinks were paid from this fund. When the kitty got low, we all topped it up equally. A simple concept, expertly managed by Shripal, that made all our group outings as simple as could be imagined.

This was also probably the most sleep deprived weekend of our lives. Our Friday night outing quickly bled into Saturday morning. Most of our group had gone out together the night before, and didn’t go home until after 5am. We then had to meet at the train station around 9am for our train ride to Cordoba. To say we were all tired would be a major understatement.

Surprisingly, we all rallied and made it through most of our train ride without sleeping. That says a lot of how much fun we were all having together.

After we arrived, we checked into our rooms. There was a bit of drama with mine and Kevin’s AirBnB, but Zoya helped us get booked into a new location right away, helped me move our stuff, and AirBnB gave us a full refund. It was a rocky start, but things picked up as soon as the vermouth and tapas started flowing.

And did they ever. We were all tired, but still managed to spend nearly 3 hours in the sun sipping vermouth and snacking on an incredible selection of tapas dishes.

That afternoon we all napped, and then reconvened for a typically-European late night dinner, following by several hours of drinking and dancing in a club on the waterfront. Day 1 of the weekend was officially a success.


Day 5 in Madrid – Friday Night! Party time!

After our day at the museum, we squeezed in a bit of shopping to help top up Kevin’s wardrobe. Then we headed off to meet up with Zoya. We met up at her apartment where we enjoyed wine in the sunshine of her back patio. It had finally stopped raining!

On the way to dinner, Zoya took us to a couple of memorable spots. First, we went to La Conservera Delistore&Tapas, a store run by the brand Frinsa. Frinsa is one of the largest European manufacturers of canned tuna fish and seafood, and was founded in Galicia, Spain. And you can actually order their stuff online!

We were able to sample a bunch of things – clams, tuna, sardines, and razor clams. They were incredibly delicious and high quality. That type of food isn’t that popular in Canada, so we’d be hard pressed to find anything like it at home. It was the perfect souvenir from our trip.

After stocking up on seafood preserves, we headed across the street to the Mercado de San Miguel. Kevin and I didn’t love our earlier ‘mercado’ experience, so we hadn’t tried this one. However, it ended up being one my highlights from the week!

Okay, so what actually is the “Market of San Miguel”? Here are the Wikipedia details:

The Market of San Miguel (SpanishMercado de San Miguel) is a covered market located in MadridSpain. Originally built in 1916, it was purchased by private investors in 2003 who renovated the iron structure and reopened it in 2009.[1]

San Miguel Market is the most popular market in Madrid among tourists since it is located in the center of Madrid, within walking distance from Plaza Mayor. The market is not a traditional grocery market but a gourmet tapas market, with over 30 different vendors selling a wide variety of freshly prepared tapas, hams, olives, baked goods and other foods. Beer, wine and champagne are also available.[1][2]

The other market we’d been to was clearly more oriented at locals and other people interested in eating a full meal. The Mercado de San Miguel embraces the spirit of tapas, encouraging you to pick up a variety of little snacks at different stations, and then grab a standup table to snack and drink. Within minutes of arriving we were drinking glasses of vermouth and snacking on an assortment of olives, preserves, and and much more.

The market was packed, and is clearly a favourite destination for tourists, so it’s both hard to move around, and easy to get jostled by others. If that’s not your jam, I’d stay away from this place. However, if you’re looking for place to stop and experience great energy and excitement as you get ready for a long night out, then I highly recommend stopping by the Mercado de San Miguel!

After the market, on to dinner!

That night we dined with Zoya and Shripal, and two of their friends (who later came with us to Cordoba), including the friend who introduced them in the first place! We ate dinner at a place called Parrila Del Mago, famous for their barbecue, steaks in particular. The food was great and the company was even better. Since it was Kevin’s birthday, we embarrassed him with a loud rendition of ‘happy birthday’ when dessert arrived.

After dinner, onto dancing!

We started out our evening at some kind of live rock show type bar. The music was so bad it was amazing, but we quickly left for a more ‘discotheque’ type experience. We loaded up with gin & tonics and hit the dancefloor to the latest in hip Spanish music, including the now-inescapable Despacito and this banger about bicycles from Shakira. Obviously they also played Drake, he’s everywhere!

By 5am we realized we needed to get home and sleep before our train to Cordoba. Photos below of our Friday afternoon adventures!