Sunday, March 30, 2014

Milan 2013 - Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Right off the Piazza del Duomo is one of Milan's most famous landmarks - the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. This is one of the World's oldest shopping malls, and to me also one of the most beautiful.Completed in 1877, it consists of 2 glass-vaulted arcades which connects the Piazza del Duomo to the Piazza della Scala.

The arcade is very wide, allowing ample space for people to wander around, and the glass vaulted ceiling with steel frames look so light and elegant.

The highlight is the glass dome at the centre of the Galleria. The size is impressive, and the lightness of the structure is surprising. Beautiful iron work and wall frescoes decorate the base of the dome.

The flooring of The Galleria is also very special. Covered in coloured marble mosaics and inlays, the intricate patterns and colour combination is one of the most beautiful I have seen.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Milan 2013 - Piazza del Duomo

The Piazza del Duomo is literally at the centre of Milan. This square occupies the area that is the most central location in the City since its founding. There are 2 main attractions here - the Duomo di Milano, and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II - Milan's famous covered shopping arcade. When we arrived there the sun was just coming up. It was a great sight to see the amber sunlight slowly falling on the square.

The Duomo di Milan is considered to be one of the biggest cathedrals in the World and also one of the most beautiful in Italy. Taking almost 400 years to complete, it is fully covered in pale coloured marble and looks truly magnificent.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Paris to Milan 2013 - Night Train to Milan

From Paris we were going to Italy via Milan. We decided to take the night train operated by Thello trains which would save time and a night in a hotel. The trains operate from Gare de Lyon in the South-East part of Paris. The journey from Paris to Milan is is over 800km. By train it takes around 7 hours - just great for a good night sleep. We booked a 6 person couchette and I made it a point to book the top bunk.

The cabin is quite small and barely enough for 6 persons. As you begin the journey the bunk beds are set up as normal seats. Once every one decides to sleep the seats are converted into the lower 2 bunks. The top bunk however is a separate bed which is fixed in place and accessed through a small ladder. There is even some space for your luggage. If you have the top bunk, you are not disturbed by whatever happens below so that is the best option if you can get it.

An hour after we left Gare de Lyon, I was well into slumber land. The gentle rattle of the train served as a pretty good sleep-inducer. The train actually crosses into Switzerland before entering Italy. The train conductor will go around to check tickets and collect your passports for the immigration check - for which thankfully you don't need to wake up. The passports will be handed back to you the next morning.

I woke up around 4.00 a.m. - about an hour before we arrive in Milan. When we arrived at Milan Central it was still pitch dark. Milan Central is a handsome Art Deco building with high vaulted ceilings and nice detailing. It is however a nightmare to navigate as the signages are very confusing. It took us more then 30 min to locate the left baggage department to leave our bags. Dealing with the left baggage staff felt like dealing with many of the government departments back home. There was totally no sense of urgency and a simple thing which could have taken 5 min took more then 20 min. Not the best experience when you are still groggy !

Since we had about half a day before our train to Venice, we took the subway to the city centre to have a quick tour of the city. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Paris 2013 - Lunch at Arola

We had arranged another special lunch in Paris - but this was at Arola - a restaurant by 2-Michelin starred Spanish Chef Sergei Arola. Sergei was a protege of Ferran Adria - like many of his Spanish contemporaries today. His main restaurants are in Madrid and Barcelona, and when he started his outpost in Paris many people wondered whether it would service. For a non-French chef to open a high-end restaurant in the World capital of  food takes lots of guts !

Arola is in W Hotel. Like all Ws, the W Paris is slick and beautiful. The dining room of Arola is quite large and beautifully appointed. 

The beautiful Arola dining room on the first floor.

We had ordered the multi-course tasting menu and once we were seated the dishes started to arrive. First  was bread with tomato and olive oil - Pa amb Tomàquet - one of the classic Spanish staples. You rub the tomato on the bread, drizzle some olive oil, put a few flakes of sea salt - it was so simple yet delicious.

Next came the Crab "Salad". It was more like a crab terrine - which you spread on the the bread. The crab was really fresh and sweet, and the combination of succulent chunks of crab meat with the crispy bread worked wonders on the taste buds.

The next course was a very French dish - Steak Tartar. It was chopped Black Angus beef with crunchy onions and soy sauce infusion. The beef was really tender and the colour and texture reminded me of tuna, but the taste was unmistakably beefy. Mixed with the crunchy onions and quail yolk, it was rich and full of umami.

Next was a lightly marinated Bacalao (cod) with tomatoes, spring onions and black Nicoise olives. The cod slices were really luscious in the mouth, and perfectly complimented by the contrasting flavours of tomatoes and olives. 

The next course was Las Bravas de Arola - fried potatoes with spicy tomato sauce and aoili. Patatas Bravas is like the national dish of Spain. Arola's version is more refined in terms of presentation - the potatoes have been cut into little cylindrical containers filled with the sauce inside. I am not a great potato lover so this dish was just OK for me.

Next was Tiger Prawns "al ajillo" - the prawns were sauteed with garlic, pimenton and dry sherry wine. This was full of flavours and the closest to Spanish flavours in the dishes so far.

The dessert was Pa Amb Chololata - chocolate ganache with bread toast,  fleur de sel and extra virgin olive oil. The olive oil was sealed in a tiny sugar shell. You crack the shell to allow the oil to infuse into the chocolate ganache. It was really rich and decadent. On the right of the plate is Crema Catalana - an emulsion of mandarin sorbet and Maria biscuits. It had no chance to shine next to the chocolate.

The food at Arola is a fusion of Spanish and French flavours and techniques. The service at Arola is impeccable and well paced. It was a very enjoyable meal.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Paris 2013 - Here and There

Like most European cities, the best way to explore Paris is to walk around. Bring sensible walking shoes. These are some of the interesting things I saw during my explorations around the City.

Paris is often considered the most romantic city in the World, and there is probably no other place more romantic then Pont des Arts - a pedestrian bridge which connects the Palais du Louvre and the Institut de France across the River Seine. Here, lovers hoping for eternal love seal their oath of devotion to each other by writing or carving their names onto a padlock, hook it to the chain-link balustrade and throw the keys into the river. The city is not too pleased as they have to clear the river of rusting keys once in a while, but they do leave the padlocks alone.

The bridge also play host to budding musicians and it is  a great place to catch a spontaneous performance.

I saw this Charlie Chaplin look-a-like near the Musee d'Orsay. He was very good !

A jazz band performed in front of the Musee d'Orsay. They were fantastic and sounded completely authentic and American. The girl was a great jazz singer. I would buy their album !

Along the banks of the River Seine you see lots of green boxed bolted to the low walls. When they are opened up they become pop-up shops selling all kinds of things from paintings to old photos and knick-knacks. It is a bargain hunter's paradise.

As you wonder around the city you will bump into lots of bakeries and pastry shops. They all look wonderful and irresistible.

The specialty meat shops in Paris are just as tempting as the pastry shops. Just look at the amazing selection of premium chicken and pheasants. And the care they put into preparing the products before putting them up for sale is wonderful to watch.

When I visited Place Saint-Michel there was a demonstration against violence in the Middle-East. Unlike most Asian countries which would have put a stop to the demonstrators immediately, here they let the people exercise their democratic rights.

The streets in the Latin Quarter is very atmospheric and great for aimless wandering.

Remember the restaurant in Ratatouille ? It is modeled after this restaurant - La Tour D'Argent, the Grande Dame of French Cuisine and famous for its pressed duck which is served with the blood of the duck squeezed out using a special press. Must try it one of these days. It is in the Latin Quarter, a little bit South-East of the Notre Dame. 

When I walked from the Place de la Concorde to the Notre Dame, it was indeed a beautiful day. First it was sunny and beautiful, then it became dark and cloudy and started to rain. Then it rained hail stones ! Just when I thought I was going to miss seeing Notre Dame in the sunset, the sun came out and it was beautiful again ! And then a double rainbow appeared above the River Seine. What a perfect day !