Category Archives: Spain

The Best Paella in the World

We spent the last four days of our travels through Spain chilling out in Toledo, capital of the Castilla-La Mancha autonomous region and just an hour’s bus ride south of Madrid. An ancient town located along a bend on the Tagus river, picture-perfect Toledo (which incidentally means “happy”, “river” and “hill” respectively in three different languages) is filled with grand old buildings, museums and historical sites. But we had our sights set on other, more tastier things…

Toledo - it's gorgeous

While checking in at Cerro De Bu, a cosy hostel located just inside the old city walls, Sara popped the big question: “Where can we get a good seafood paella?” What we did not know then was that Reitxel, who was checking us in, had been craving for paella herself. “Hmm… maybe my boyfriend can make it for us”, she suggested. Her boyfriend Jose is a chef who spent the last 15 years working in restaurants around Europe. Two years ago, he  returned to Toledo and converted his childhood home into a hostel.

As it turned out, we were in luck because Jose was up for the paella challenge, and had some free time to spare the following day. So the next morning, after a breakfast of instant noodles, we set off to the supermarket with Jose.

Buying seafood - fish (hake), prawns and two types of squid

Later that day, we huddled in the kitchen to watch Jose work his magic. For the benefit of our readers, we’ve condensed this into a few simple steps.

-How to make seafood paella

Peel the prawns

Make the stock using fish head and bones, prawn skins, leek and some salt

Sautee onions and leek until golden brown. Then add rice and tomatoes

Add stock, fish, prawns and calamari. Sprinkle some saffron and spices then bring to a boil

Bake in oven for 30 minutes, then... Voila!

Put paella on plate

Take group photo to record the momentous outcome

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you make the best paella ever. Of course, that’s not really the full recipe – we’ve left out some important tips and tricks. For the full recipe, go to Hostel Cerro De Bu and ask for Jose. He doesn’t normally cook for guests, but if you’re really nice and he happens to have some free time, then he might oblige.

Oh, and Sara recorded the full recipe down carefully, so if anyone in Malaysia wants to try seafood paella, contact Sara when we get home. If you’re really nice, she might oblige too.

Sara took down notes

Paellas aside, it was a real pleasure meeting Jose and Reitxel. We wish them all the best and do hope they will come to visit us in Malaysia someday so we can show them how to cook nasi lemak… with some help from our mothers, of course  🙂

Great food and great company - the perfect way to end our time in Spain

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A walk in the Pyrenees

One of the items on our “things-to-do-in-Spain” list was to take a walk in the Pyrenees. Deciding where exactly in the Pyrenees to take this walk was quite tough, as the Pyrenees is rather long, with many regions and trails to choose from. After some mulling, we decided on the Ordesa valley, which the internet says is where “the Pyrenees is at its most majestic”.

So we bought ourselves some wind resistant jackets, raincoats and gloves and made our way to the sleepy hamlet of Torla, which is the closest sleepy hamlet to the Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park, which, as its name suggests, is where the majestic Ordesa valley is. We were hoping to do a two-day walk, and spend a night at one of the park’s refugios, which have bunks available on a first-come-first-serve basis.

What the internet didn’t say (at least to us) was that most of the trails in the park are closed to the public until May. The very informative ranger at the park’s new visitor and interpretation centre in Torla informed us that unless we had mountaineering experience and equipment, we could only do the start of the classic GR11 trail. The other catch was that since the shuttle bus to the park would also not be operational till May, we would have to walk another two hours to get to the park, bringing the grand total walking time to 10 hours. This sounded like a plan, nevertheless. Plus it was free (there is no entrance fee for any of the national parks in Spain).

The plan. Seemed easy enough

The interpretation centre was quite impressive by the way, and befits the park, which was the first protected area to be established in Spain (way back in 1918) and together with an adjacent park in France now constitutes the Pyrenees-Mont Perdu UNESCO World Heritage Site. What we particularly liked about the centre was that it paid tribute to the various naturalists (not scientists!) who helped unravel its natural history, as well as the local communities living around the park who still maintain their traditional culture and ties with the land.

Naturalists are the coolest dudes anywhere in the world, even if some may be somewhat chubby

What Sara is holding may look like a detonation device, but is just an audio guide

So first thing the next morning, garbed in our newly purchased hiking gear and ignoring the weather forecast (85 percent probability of precipitation; temperature range 5-12 degrees Celsius) we set off to the Ordesa Valley. The first leg: a two hour hike to the park’s car park!

Looked like rain right from the start

Crossing the Rio Azaras

After a very pleasant two and a half hour walk, mostly uphill through pine forest without a single other person in sight, we came to the car park. It was full of cars! From what we could tell, mostly day trippers like us who were here to do the same route. Among them were senior citizens, young children, parents carrying babies – either the trail is very easy, or Spanish people are very tough.

Big tree or small person?

Ain't no sunshine. Trying for a calendar shot

Mossy forest

The route turned out to be pretty tough but doable – a wide trail up the valley with a reasonably gradual ascent. The highlights were the waterfalls and views of the snow capped limestone massifs. We’re no geologists. But if were were, we would probably have been impressed by the stunning morphology of the area – the calcerous peaks, the glacier carved valley floor, the vertical uplift of sedimentary deposits, etc.

Getting close. Can't decide if that's one tree, or two

Possibly the last of the first set of waterfalls. We lost count

Maybe the beginning of the second set of waterfalls. If this were in Malaysia, some unimaginative idiot would probably have named it "Telaga Tujuh"

Our favourite view

The Cabutlaris couldn't resist getting into the frame

We decided to call it a day and head back about a minute after taking the above photo. Good thing we did, because it started to drizzle, then rain, and finally hail for a while. It was 5pm and drizzling when we reached the car park. We managed to hitch a ride back to Torla from a nice couple from Barcelona.

About a minute of sunshine after the rain and hail on the way back

The same minute of sunshine catches Sara reaching into the backpack for an apple

The next day in Torla. Sunshine and blue skies. Arrgh!

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Aimless in Ainsa

We’ve always liked the little towns better than the big cities. So we headed to Ainsa, a town on the foot of the Pyrenees.

One bus took us from Barcelona to a town called Barbastro. From there we had to buy another set of tickets for another bus to Ainsa. It seems the further away from the city, the less people speak English. So buying the Ainsa bus tickets from a ticket machine that only spoke Spanish was terrifying, but with the help of a nice fellow we got our tickets.

We read that Ainsa was a pretty little town, and we weren’t disappointed. Raptors in the bright blue sky greeted us, and we felt that it was going to be a good stay.

Ainsa, and its castle on a hill. Thankfully we did not stay on the hill.

That is until it rained the next day, and didn’t stop until night time. We still went for a walk along the river, but the rain kept us from going very far. Plus we didn’t want to ruin our new awesome wind-proof jackets.

We saw a big bird (is it a vulture?) land on a hill slope. We were about 100 metres away so we couldn't really see it, and our camera didn't really help.

A house in Ainsa that looks just like what we used to draw when we were kids.

The sun shone again on the third day so we decided to have a little picnic breakfast by the river. About thirty to fourty raptors were again in sight as we were leaving Ainsa for Torla. What a way to say goodbye.

By the way, a birthday shout-out to one of our top readers as she celebrates her birthday on April 13th. Happy birthday, Mama!

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Oh my, that’s Gaudi!

We’re all historical building-ed out. From Morocco’s palaces to Spain’s cathedrals along with every other stately old building around the corner, everything looks the same now. *Oh my, not another grand, palatial palace*

So with that frame of mind we set off to visit Barcelona’s “must-see” tourist site – the La Sagrada Familia, the most famous work of the famous architect Antoni Gaudi i Cornet. Following a brief discussion on the Metro en route, we reached an agreement that in the case of the entrance fee being more than 10 Euros, we’d just stare at it from the outside.

La Sagradilia Familia from the outside

We exited the Metro station, turned around, and went “Holy crap!” There in front of us stood the weirdest, most whimsical, yet spectacular building that either of us had ever seen. After Sara popped into Burger King to get a refreshing milkshake, we paid for the entrance fee plus audio guide (which came to a staggering 17 Euros per person) and went in.

The fact that we (and probably another 50,000 people per day) were paying top dollar to visit a construction site did not escape us. Although work began on the Sagrada Familia in 1882, construction is still ongoing (they succeeded in putting on the roof a few years ago, and it’s estimated that the entire building will be finished by 2040). Could this just be the most profitable construction site in the world?

La Sagrada Familia - the most profitable construction site in the world

Its insides are just as weird, whimsical and spectacular as its outsides. Although some parts seemed a bit… Gaudi *cough cough*. Other than “Gaudi”, there’s no other way to describe Gaudi, other than “genius”. He didn’t just draw stuff, he re-invented the classical forms of columns and other structural components using complex geometry (hyperbolic paraboloid kind of stuff). This has caused La Sagrada to be ranked by some other blogger as one of the “9 Most Mathematically Interesting Buildings in the World“.

Not understanding any of the maths, what we personally liked was that Gaudi drew inspiration from nature – for example the inside of La Sagrada Familia was designed to look like a forest, arches were designed based on seashells, and columns based on tree trunks and plant leaf arrangements.

Taken from "Gaudi and Nature" exhibition poster

Inside - just like a huge forest

Taken from "Gaudi and Nature" exhibition poster

The columns - very ideal indeed

Inside - Upstairs includes space for a 1,000 strong choir

Gaudi is the most well known of the Modernistas, a group of architects who set out to create a specific Catalan architecture in Barcelona between 1880 and the 1920s. His life came to a tragic end when he was hit by a tram. Apparently nobody bothered to help because he looked like a tramp (probably too tied up with his work on La Sagrada) and he died at the hospital because he was driven there too late. Anyway, the “works of Gaudi” which includes seven properties scattered around Barcelona, have been listed as a World Heritage Site.

Now firm Gaudinistas, we trudged around Barcelona to see his other buildings (from the outside, so no entrance fee involved).  We managed to see two. Of these, our favourite was Casa Battlo, for its playful design and colours. In second place was Casa Mila, which was completed in 1910 as an office block and apartments.

Casa Battlo - looks much better in real life

The queue for tickets in front of Casa Battlo

Casa Mila - another queue yet again

In souvenir shops all over town we kept seeing a mosaic lizard and other mosaic animals being sold and wondered what the heck mosaic animals had to do with Barcelona. We found out why on our trip to Park Guell, a park on a hill designed by Gaudi. Like Gaudi’s other works, the park was crawling with tourists. Unlike (most of) his other works, there is no entrance fee.

The hansel-gretel type house at the entrance

More parabolic stuff on the ceiling

More leaning columns and stuff

A tourist threatening big mosaic dog with mosaic donut

A tourist molesting big mosaic lizard thing

View of Barcelona from Park Guell. Either La Sagrada Familia (on the left) is very tall, or all the other buildings are very short

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Looking for nasi lemak

Hungry for home, we Googled “Malaysian restaurant in Barcelona” and found one Bunga Raya restaurant, apparently run by a mad British man who used to stay in Malaya during the war. The reviews by previous patrons mentioned that Bunga Raya serves nasi lemak. So the Cabutlaris were on it!

One of the best Malaysian food: nasi lemak daun pisang. Photo randomly taken off the internet

After walking for about four hours, we were hungry for nasi lemak (and giddy from Gaudi). We navigated our way through some of the narrowest streets of Barcelona and found.. nothing. Either the mad Brit has really gone mad or the shop has moved or is closed for the week-long celebrations. Our search continues.

We came across a Kuala Lumpur shop along the famous La Rambla tourist hotspot. It sold clothes – nothing remotely Malaysian about these clothes, or its sales people. Wonder what that’s about?

The first thing that came to mind was, is this a restaurant?! No? Oh.

Anda panda? Sara was. She hopes her project team is doing well.

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The red one

The Al-hambra, or “the red one” is a smallish palace within a huge fortress that was first built by the Nasrid Moorish dynasty on a hill in Granada in the 14th century.

The Alhambra as seen from Rambutan hostel

The Al-hambra is obviously very old and has a lot of history. We won’t bore you with historical details, but here are our top three favourite things about this palace/fortress:

1. It’s clever – The Moors were brilliant defense engineers who included all sorts of clever engineering designs (especially in the outer walls and ramparts) to make it an impenetrable fortress that has never been breached. Perhaps the most important of these is the construction of an aqueduct inside the hill behind it that provides a permanent source of clean water into the palace.

2. It’s pretty – While it’s all solid and impenetrable on the outside, the Al-hambra is soft and pretty on the inside. In the palace, the Nasrid rulers conceived what is thought to be the most brilliant Islamic building in all of Europe, with perfectly proportioned courtyards, beautiful gardens and fountains, elaborate carvings, etc.

3. It’s peaceful – Compared to other old fortresses, very little blood was spilled in the Al-hambra (and Granada too) as the Muslim Nasrid rulers preferred diplomacy over warfare – this make love not war thing is apparently the reason why a large hippie community now resides in the town. When Isabelle and Ferdinand (a very cool couple who even signed a prenuptial agreement before it became fashionable) sent a huge army to conquer Granada, the then Nasrid ruler Muhammad XII chose the peaceful option – he sold the Alhambra to them and left Granada peacefully on condition that that they would not harm or persecute the Muslim community living in the town.  Moved by the beauty of the Moorish palace, they did not tear it down (as is usually done following reconquest) but just did a little re-decorating instead.

The two palaces for the Muslim and Christian rulers

With beams like these, who needs plaster ceilings?

This tree isn't dead, just deciduous

Carved into solid rock

Remaining outer walls and tower of the impenetrable Alcazaba (citadel)

A very tall hedge

The Nasrid palace - the best example of Islamic architecture in Europe

Not having audio guides, we never found out who the two sisters were, or why their hall was so small

Part of the Alcazaba's fortifications

The Palacio de Carlos V built by later Christian rulers has huge knockers

With a view like this, it's good to be king

"Vertical gardens" are now currently the in thing, but were already in use in the Alhambra

Pretty trees everywhere in the Alhambra grounds

One of the many types of flowers in the gardens

Instead of the usual photo of one of us, here's a nice shot of a random guy

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Groggy and hungry, we dragged ourselves from the train station to our accommodation Catalonia Park Putxet after an 11-hour (painfully slow) overnight train ride from Granada. The hotel is within a residential area, and a 10-minute uphill walk from the nearest Metro. As it’s the week leading up to Easter Sunday, prices for accommodation go up and after much searching online, we came across this hotel which is the same price, if not cheaper than many of the youth hostels around Barcelona.

After a quick shower, a hurried lunch, an unplanned bit of shopping for second hand clothes at the Humana shop and a 45-minute wait at the sales office later, we finally got our tickets and were on our way to Camp Nou!

Camp Nou. Rain stopped in time for the match. They must have good bomohs here

It had been raining here all day and all week, but the sky miraculously cleared in time for the big game. We were not allotted seats next to each other, but we were still at the same block, four rows away. The kind gentleman seated next to Dylan offered to switch seats with Sara at halftime after he saw both of us signing to each other from afar. Barca fans are certainly a good bunch of people!

Pricey, but worth it. Now we eat just two meals a day.

Camp Nou, one hour before match time

Freeze! Yes, we did.


Fabregas volunteered to be the ball for his teammates to practice their kicks

AC Milan players like to pose


Standing around the big flat ball

The teams lining up with little kids

Pique down injured and was substituted soon after. A real shame, as he had been outstanding

A bit of "argy-bargy", right before Messi takes a free kick in the second half

Anyway, Barca put on a dazzling show, especially in the second half when they passed Milan off the park. See our video clips of the match here if you’re interested. Being there at the Nou Camp so close to Messi and the best team in the world (and of all time perhaps?) will certainly be one to tell the grandchildren (and everyone else :P).

The obligatory we-were-there photo!

It was a challenge finding our way back to the hotel after the game. We blindly followed the hoards of Barca fans for about 20 minutes before realising they were going to a different Metro station. We collapsed in bed at 12.30am after sharing a kebab.

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We spent our last night in Morocco in the bustling port city of Tangier. To celebrate the last we see of tagines, we treated ourselves to a thai dinner. Although its tomyam was a little bit strange and the green curry very strange, we were quite impressed with Tangier, which has many stately James Bond-esque old buildings left over from its colonial past, but is also buzzing with energy and promise, as evident in its new humongous port and soon-to-be-built giant marina.

We caught a ferry to Algeceiras, Spain the next morning, which turned out to be a ferry / cargo ship / cruise liner. The journey across the Straits of Gibraltar on the Balearia (which has a swimming pool on its upper deck) lasted just over an hour, significantly less than the time spent waiting to board (while the trailers were being loaded into the cargo). Another four hour bus ride later, and we were in Granada!

The snazzy ferry

Sara freezing while waiting to board the snazzy ferry

The website of the Rambutan hostel provides detailed directions on how to get there. However, these detailed directions are not very clear. Anyway, two bus rides, a long walk, and a bit of arguing later, we finally got there. It was worth it though, as the Rambutan sits on a hill overlooking the Alhambra in an area called Sacramonte, and just 10 minutes walk to the city. Hippies live in caves behind the hostel.

The Rambutan Hostel - so named because like the rambutan, it's hard to find in Granada

Sunset over the Alhambra (view from Rambutan Hostel)

There's a free 2-hour historical walking tour every morning. Guides (usually travelers who don't want to go home) conduct these, and you just tip them as much as you like. Highly recommended!

Water is very clean here

Trying to put on weight after becoming too slim from walking everywhere

Isabella and Ferdinand - we'll tell their story in the next post

Cats have siestas too here 🙂

As luck would have it, we arrived in time for the start of the week-long parade leading up to Easter Sunday (Easter is celebrated in a big way here – schools are off for a week). It was spectacular!

At the starting line!

The first part of the procession

We were told that some of the items carried are very very old - if there was a chance of rain, the entire parade would be cancelled

We managed to get tickets for the Alhambra after queuing up for an hour at seven this morning (not as long as the queue for Nasi Kandar Beratur, but hopefully more worthwhile). Then we’re taking the night train to Barcelona.

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