Wednesday, July 23, 2008

the beach

Cold drinks on a hot day ... a pop stand on the Paseo de La Concha does brisk business all afternoon. San Sebastián, Spain. (2008).

Sprawled along a spectacular stretch of coast along the Bay of Biscay, San Sebastián (Donostia, in Basque) is one of the most resplendent holiday destinations on the Atlantic Arc. Considered the must-visit jewel of Basque Country, the city buzzes during summer with its renowned jazz and international film festivals and, with local restaurants having been bestowed with no fewer than thirteen Michelin stars (second only to Paris), San Sebastián is a veritable galaxy of fine dining in, and of, itself.

But the real reason most decide to make the trip to San Sebastián in the first place is the beach ... and the urban sea, sand, and surf here are simply sensational. Have a look at a few snaps.

The vivid colours of the Bahía de La Concha. San Sebastián, Spain. (2008). In the distance, the Monument of the Sacred Heart watches over the city from atop Monte Urgull.

San Sebastián is home to three beaches along the Bay of Biscay. The Playa de La Concha - probably the most famous of the three - also is considered to be one of Europe's finest city beaches. (2008).

Sea and sand: the Playa de Ondarreta. San Sebastián, Spain. (2008). Monte Igeldo rises in the background, towering over the western entrance of the Bahía de La Concha.

Looking east along the crescent-shaped Playa de La Concha. San Sebastián, Spain. (2008).

A little beach volleyball at the Playa de Ondarreta. San Sebastián, Spain. (2008).

With a wicked lefthanded break, the waters off the Playa de la Zurriola are for the surfers. San Sebastián, Spain. (2008). Waves were very small on the afternoon I was there, but there were still plenty of surfers in the water.

Surfin' on a summer afternoon. San Sebastián, Spain. (2008).

Crash. San Sebastián, Spain. (2008).

San Sebastián's town hall. (2008).

Promenade along the Paseo de La Concha. San Sebastián, Spain. (2008).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

lost in translation

No question: the digital photography revolution has made it easier than ever for people to take beautiful pictures. Unlike the film days of old, having only limited knowledge about variables such as shutter speed, aperture and metering is no longer a handicap. Just put your digital camera into auto, frame, and fire away. No fuss ... and great photography every time. What an age we live in!

The pleasant and impeccably preserved Old Town of Tallinn, capital of the Baltic nation of Estonia. (2008).

However, with photography having become so easily accessible to the masses, it begs the question: can photography really be considered an art anymore? I mean, let's face it, anyone can do it. I think this is a good question, though I can't really say it's one I thought much about before my recent trip to Finland.

So, about Finland. Right. One of the lessons I learned at the Castleman School of Travel Writing was to never unfairly pan an entire place because of an isolated incident or two, so I won't do it in detail here. What I will do is share with you one particular nugget from my trip.

Imagine Helsinki, capital of Finland, maybe around 9pm on a Friday night. I'm sitting on a park bench checking text messages on my phone, across the street from the Hotel Kämp, Finland's leading luxury hotel. Really nice area of town, as you might expect. There are a lot of people walking around (it's Friday, after all), and an eyebrow-raising number of them are strolling about with open liquor (this is actually illegal in Finland, but it's a law that's not enforced). But whatever ... when in Rome ... and so forth.

Then, two well-dressed Finnish guys, maybe in their late twenties, walk by in front of me drinking beers, clearly drunk. As they pass, one of them sees fit to rear back and smash his empty bottle on the wall behind me. They laugh - because, see, this is apparently funny - and continue stumbling on their way. No one around me seems to so much as bat an eyelash at the scene. I'm not sure why - maybe this is normal behaviour in Helsinki on Friday night? Like the truly unique Finnish language, I don't get it. But sometimes, it just is what it is.

So ask me again whether I think photography is art ... and I'll answer that damn right it is. I'll also add that I'm no artist ... because in my five days in Finland, I've (unexpectedly) been around enough mean-spirited rudeness and misery to know that I neither have the inspiration nor the ability to make this place look very beautiful from any angle, so the only pictures you'll see in this post are from Estonia. Finland ... I'll leave to the real pros.

The silver lining in all of this? If there is a particular photographic genre that starfish and waffles specializes in, it's travel photography ... and the "travel" part of the equation implies that one inevitably moves on and leaves it behind.

With this Finnish experience, I've moved on and left it behind.

Tallinn's Gothic town hall was constructed in the 14th century and is the only one of its type in northern Europe that has survived to the present day. (2008).

Tallinn's Old Town is delightfully (and authentically) medieval and, not surprisingly, the city markets itself as such to foreign tourists. To fit with the theme, many who work at Tallinn's main attractions are donned in period costume, like this girl who was selling tickets for the Danish Gardens. (2008).

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

fast forward

While we promise that more from Basque Spain is coming down the pipe soon, time won't wait and neither can the next destination in this starfish and waffles summer. I'm off again, this time to Finland (and, possibly, Estonia).

In the meantime, please direct any inquiries to the editor.

The Ría de Bilbao: the Río Nervión's super-waterway to the sea. Bilbao, Spain. (2008). Sometimes, you just have to let it flow and whatever happens, happens.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

basking in bilbao

The decision to make Bilbao and the Basque region of northern Spain the focal point of my first trip to the Iberian Peninsula is met with mixed reviews.

"Bilbao is ... an industrial city," says Leyre, a friend from Valencia, in thoughtful euphemism. "But you'll have a great time in San Sebastián!" she optimistically adds.

Fun, kitschy and beloved: Puppy, a flower "sculpture" by Jeff Koons, guards the entrance to the magnificent Museo Guggenheim Bilbao. Bilbao, Spain. (2008).

When I arrive in the city, even the friendly front desk at the boutique Hotel Miró raises something of a surprised, furrowed brow.

"You're staying with us for ... four nights. Wow. Ok!"

Somehow, I get the feeling that many people, native Bilbaínos included, still underestimate just how far the city has come in its urban renewal efforts. But this means fewer tourists compared to other parts of Spain and, for the traveler who favors rambling down the slightly off-the-beaten-track anyway, this maybe isn't a bad thing.

At first glance, Bilbao is a surprisingly attractive river city that belies its somewhat austere reputation. It is authentically working class yet civilized with an understated cultural refinement. Clearly, the largest city in the Basque region is prospering again and, might I say, making it look rather easy. The streets are alive without much in the way of stress or chaos and life for citizens in this welcoming city seems to be very good.

However, it wasn't always this way.

No less than a quarter of a century ago, Bilbao was mired in an ugly, post-industrial decline. The city became Spain's version of a rust-belt Pittsburgh, a poster child for urban decay, and Bilbao's youth began migrating in droves to other Spanish cities in search of greener pastures. To make matters worse, increasing political tension and terrorist activity incited by a small group of Basque separatists proved counter-intuitive to overall progress. Things looked bleak.

Fortunately, the city's hard-working spirit and visionary urban planning would prevail, and by the early 1990's, Bilbao had clearly become a nice turnaround story. The opening of the city's landmark Guggenheim Museum further established the city's position as a metropolis on the move, just in time for the 21st century.

"Industrial" Bilbao has never looked better. (2008). The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Puente de la Salve (the bridge), and the Ría de Bilbao glow like few others at midnight.

One might (successfully) argue that the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao put the city on the map. Designed by Canadian architect Frank O. Gehry, "El Goog" is considered by many to be one of the finest examples of modern architecture anywhere in the world. And let me tell you, in person, it does not disappoint.

Like the somewhat comparable Sydney Opera House, the Guggenheim Bilbao evokes a maritime theme and resembles a giant ship - a clear nod to the city's shipbuilding and fishing roots. Uniquely clad in titanium tiles, the museum reflects a spectrum of shades and moods at different times throughout the day. Inside, the 45-metre (148-foot) high glass atrium, is positively a sight to behold. Inspired by the human heart, the foyer "pumps" arteries of catwalks and walkways to the different galleries of the museum. Incredible stuff.

Yet, for all of its architectural triumphs, perhaps the most impressive thing about the Guggenheim is its accessibility to citizens and visitors alike. Sure, the art and architecture here are world-class, but it doesn't come with the uppity attitude. One doesn't have to look much further than the museum's extensive grounds to appreciate this.

From Jeff Koon's kitschy and delightful "sculpture" Puppy - a 12-metre (39-foot) dog which cheerfully guards the museum's entrance ... to the extensive playground crawling with kids at all hours of the day ... to the wine and pintxos (tapas) bar featuring the live music of Spanish guitars under the night stars ... the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is proof that the best public places should not be built only to be admired, but also lived and enjoyed.

Happily, the Guggenheim's vibe of playful accessibility runs throughout the whole city, and it is this very disposition which makes Bilbao the splendid place that it is. This Renaissance, of sorts, is one for the people ... and I'm glad I had the chance to be part of it, if only for a few days.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao at night. (2008). The "spider-looking" sculpture out in front of the museum is Maman, by Louise Bourgeois.

The shimmering Puente de la Salve. Bilbao, Spain. (2008).

Colourful window boxes are the trademark of the Hesperia Bilbao Hotel. Bilbao, Spain. (2008). A sure sign of life in a comeback city, new hotels are springing up on both sides of the Ría de Bilbao.

The amazing Zubizuri footbridge, designed by architect Santiago Calatrava. Bilbao, Spain. (2008)

A slice of skyline of the new Bilbao, with the Zubizuri footbridge at the left. (2008).

"El Goog" by day. Bilbao, Spain. (2008).

Kids enjoy dodging the random jets of water shooting from the fountains on the grounds of the Guggenheim. Bilbao, Spain. (2008).

Guggenheim lemons. Bilbao, Spain. (2008).

Juan Muñoz's Thirteen Laughing at Each Other outside the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. (2008).

I can only assume that Inky, Blinky, Pinky, Clyde and the Bilbao city tram are fleeing a hungry Pac-Man in this shot. Bilbao, Spain. (2008).

Kids at play in Plaza Nueva, in the heart of Bilbao's Casco Viejo (Old Quarter). (2008).

On the streets of Casco Viejo. Bilbao, Spain. (2008).

Monday, July 07, 2008


Go ahead, risk your 2 kroner and take a chance ... you might just end up with the choicest gumball of them all. Helsingør, Denmark. (2008).

Flipping through the starfish and waffles archives, I am reminded of an erstwhile search for starfish that still hasn't ended. There's no sense in stopping now. So, early tomorrow morning, I ship off to the next destination. Queue up Bilbao and the Basque Country ... northern Spain awaits.

See you in a few.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

fiery firenze

For all of its artistic and alluring splendor, the charm of today's Florence (Firenze, in Italian) seems to drown in a mind-numbing sea of tourists. I suppose maybe it serves us right for arriving on the Sunday afternoon of Fashion Week.

The very muddy - but picturesque - Arno River, lifeblood of Florence, Italy. (2008). Walking along the river's beautiful banks, one can imagine how the city served as such brilliant inspiration to some of the Italian Renaissance's best artists, architects, and craftsmen.

Still, Florence is one of Italy's must-see destinations. Cradle of the Renaissance, the city that sits on the banks of the muddy Arno still seriously overwhelms over a half millennium later.

Around every corner you look, there's something famous. Michelangelo's David. Bottecelli's Primavera. The Duomo. The Uffizi. And the list goes on.

Thank God for the amazing local gelaterias, which provide refreshing respite in a spectrum of frosty flavours when one needs a break from Florence's staggering sights. (Yes, even when on the road, we here at starfish and waffles strongly recommend not neglecting your daily recommended intake of the important ice cream food group). Amen.

Ok, here are a few more photographs.

The Ponte alla Carraia. Florence, Italy. (2008). No fewer than nine bridges span the Arno within Florence's city limits, and each has its own mood and character.

The Ponte Vecchio. Florence, Italy. (2008). Spanning the Arno at its narrowest point, the Ponte Vecchio dates back to Roman times and is probably Florence's most famous bridge. It's also the only Florence bridge that was not blown up by retreating Germans during the latter stages of the Second World War. Today, the bridge is lined with busy shops and many tourists.

A view of Florence from the Boboli Gardens. (2008).

A street scene outside the Galleria degli Uffizi, one of the world's great museums. Florence, Italy. (2008). The Uffizi's collection of over 1500(!) masterpieces pretty much constitutes a who's-who of the most famous of Renaissance artists. Some name-dropping: Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Rembrandt, Caravaggio ... and more.

The imposing Duomo (scaffolding and all), the most recognizable feature of Florence's skyline and one of the iconic landmarks of Italy alongside Rome's Colosseum and Pisa's Leaning Tower. (2008). The world's fourth-largest cathedral, the Duomo took 150 years to complete.

One of the "non-dome" parts of the Duomo. Florence, Italy. (2008). The official name of the towering landmark: the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Note the fascinating, intricate pink-and-green facade.

Friday, July 04, 2008

tuscan glutton

As you know, Catholicism runs deep in Italy. Therefore, being in this country begs the age-old question: could Jesus microwave a burrito so hot that even He, Himself, could not eat it?

The historic Castello di Verrazzano. Greti, Italy. (2008). Fine wines, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and honey have been produced for centuries at the Verrazzano Estate.

While you're pondering that holy chestnut, let's talk about one of my favourite seven deadly sins: gluttony. Now let's not kid ourselves, the Colosseum and the Vatican are nice, but the real reason we're in Italy is to eat and drink ... and excessively so. And what better place than the heart of Tuscany to partake in the guilty pleasures of food and wine?

Yes. Exactly. Tuscan food. Tuscan wine. Now we're talking business, see.

Today's venue (or temple, if you will) for our ravenous inclinations: the Castello di Verrazzano (Castle of Verrazzano). Perched on a hill high atop the Greve Valley, the historic castle dates back to the 12th century and is notable as the birthplace of explorer Giovanni da Verrazzno (1485 - 1528), discoverer of the Bay of New York. More importantly (for us, anyway), the Verrazzano Estate has been producing fine wine, olive oil, balsmamic vinegar, and honey for hundreds of years, and today we're on board for a full-course food and wine sampler.

After a tour of the manicured gardens and aged wine cellars, it's onto the dining room for a meal featuring several Tuscan epicurean delights. Specifically on the menu ... bruschetta brushed with the tastiest of olive oils ... paper-thin prosciutto and flavourful wild boar salami ... sharp Pecorino (sheep's milk cheese) and Parmesan dipped in honey-sweet balsamic vinegar ... fresh penne in a spicy wild boar and juniper berry sauce ... a salad of fresh local greens with thick slices of buffalo milk-oozing mozzarella and just-off-the-vine cherry tomatoes ... scrumptiously tender roast loin of pork and chicken ... crunchy cantuccini (almond cookies) and full, rich espresso ... and a shot of grappa strong enough to clear the sinuses twice over. And to drink? A complete sampling of the estate's fine Tuscan reds, of course, with the deep cherry, velvety-soft Sassello being the memorable star.

The final verdict? Easily, one of the best meals I've ever had. Mmmmm ...

Ok, let's end this here because writing this post is making me hungry and I need to get something to eat. Bon appetito!

Vines and olive groves fan out into the Greve Valley from the Castello di Verrazzano. Greti, Italy. (2008).

Verrazzano fine wines. Greti, Italy. (2008).

Oak barrels filled with estate wines age in the cool cellars beneath the Castello di Verrazzano. Greti, Italy. (2008).

Gastronomic excellence in the dining room of the Castello di Verrazzano. Greti, Italy. (2008).

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

chianti classico

Morning coffee from our private terrace at La Loggia del Chianti Bed and Breakfast. Greve in Chianti, Italy. (2008).

No need to finesse this: my favourite Italy is the Tuscan Italy. You know the one ... the Tuscany of green hills, olive groves and endless vines ... of grand, sunny farmhouses and air that smells of oregano and thyme ... of heavenly local cuisine and velvety-rich Chianti wines.

At its best, the Tuscan countryside is a proverbial feast for the senses and, after having spent a weekend in the heart of the classic Chianti region, I have nothing to dispel that notion. Two words: go there.

Here are a few more pictures.

It looks a bit like a castle, but it's actually the town library. (But maybe it was once a castle - I'm not sure). Greve in Chianti, Italy. (2008).

Simply a rose. Greve in Chianti, Italy. (2008).

The friendly local butcher of the Fabiani Macelleria butcher shop. Greve in Chianti, Italy. (2008).

The town of Greve in Chianti, Italy. (2008).

Italian ducks. Mmmm, duck. Greve in Chianti, Italy. (2008).

A view of a vineyards, right behind our bed and breakfast. Greve in Chianti, Italy. (2008). Since the Chianti region of Tuscany is all about the wine ... we'll say a little more on the tipple in a future post ...

Tuscany is also famous for its food. Here's a snapshot of Connie at the Bortega del Moro, one of the best restaurants we ate at in all of Italy. If you go, make sure you order the eggplant-stuffed ravioli with truffles and the fish risotto. Simply unbelievable.