Nottingham Vs. Birmingham

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Nottingham was not the first place on my list for a weekend trip, but being on the verge of missing out on seeing Bob Dylan play once in my life, I booked it right away. I have developed a recent a habit of travelling to different cities in different countries for the sole purpose of attending a concert. It’s a great way to plan weekends in places I’ve never been, and I can explore a little whilst I’m there. This was no exception. I never would have picked Nottingham, of all places, but I’m so glad that Bob Dylan happened to be playing there, and that I happened to want a ticket.

I arrived just in time to check into my hostel and grab some dinner before the show. I’d done a little prior research, and Purecraft Bar & Kitchen happened to be just around the corner from where I was staying. The giant burger and Oatmeal Stout did the trick, and the lovely staff were a great indication of what was to come from the friendly Nottinghamers (is this the correct word? I Googled it and all I found were “Boggers” and “Scabs”). Nottinghamians?

I grabbed a quick porter in The Angel Microbrewery, accidentally making it in time for happy hour, which meant it was a little busy for me. Sitting alone drinking a beer is one thing, but standing alone with a beer is a tad more awkward. I appreciated the cheap beer, though! I snuck out and found my seat in the arena. Second row from the back. Should have brought my look-furthers! (Binoculars, if you didn’t catch on.) I soon became surrounded by excited oldies, grown-up sons surprising their dads, families with little kids, and groups of teenagers. I must say, I was impressed to see such a diverse crowd still buzzing over Bob Dylan after so many hundred years. (He’s how old?)

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The show was on the opposite end of the scale to the heavy gigs I’ve been frequenting as of late. I must admit, I wished I’d had a coffee beforehand. Although it was slow and he kind of looked like a little old lady from where I sat, Bob Dylan was as captivating as ever. Maybe not so much for the people lucky enough to see him when he was younger, but being my first time, it was something special. His voice was gravelly and old, but his passion was strong, and every now and then you could catch a glimpse of that smooth voice from his youth. He never spoke between songs, never thanked the audience, never told stories about his songs. He didn’t need to. I had an interesting conversation about it later on with a stranger who had seen Mr. Dylan in Cardiff a couple of nights earlier, and I remember something he said. “He doesn’t allow himself to be defined. He’s just Bob Dylan.” For some reason that really stuck in my brain.

After the last song, and the encore (of Blowing in the Wind), Bob Dylan stood up, looked out into the crowd, then turned his back and walked off stage. I sat for another minute before the house lights came back on and people started to shuffle out of the arena. It was over. I stepped outside into the chilly air and watched the crowd form around a Bob Dylan impersonator bursting out all the hits that the real Dylan didn’t play, so they could live in the moment for a while longer. A man was selling tour shirts. I bought one, even though I had already bought one inside (sans tour dates). It was cold anyway, so three shirts were better than one.

I would have stayed longer and watched the busker, but my bladder got the better of me, so I made my way to BrewDog. I’m a big fan of their Jet Black Heart Stout, so I grabbed one and did the old “stand alone and drink a beer” thing once again. It wasn’t long before a friendly guy and his dad started asking how I liked the show. We started chatting, and, after explaining that he was married and that he wasn’t trying to be creepy, he offered to show me some other great beer spots around town. He happened to know people so I scored a couple of freebies (thanks, Gav!). The first place we went was Six Barrel Drafthouse, where I got a lovely coffee stout. Very smooth. The place seemed to have a great selection of local brews, and the atmosphere was friendly. Next up was the Keans Head pub, complete with a long list of great beers, even a huge selection of the Aussie Pirate Life! This is where I had that conversation about Dylan that I mentioned earlier, with one of Gav’s mates. Everybody in this town was so friendly and up for a good conversation, not just small talk. Gav and his dad headed off, then so did the others. I finished my milk stout and started walking towards my hostel, although I was having such a good time, I wasn’t sure I was ready to go home.

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I wandered along the street with all the people and went into a joint which I soon realised was the trashy pub of the town. Not my scene. I got out and twaddled in the direction of home when something caught my ear. (Can you say that, or just “caught my eye“?) There was a live band in The Pit & Pendulum playing Nirvana and Pearl Jam covers. I was in. I ordered one of their strange sin-themed cocktails, which was affordable and frankly quite delicious. I only caught a couple of songs from the band, unfortunately, but I had to go to the bathroom, anyway. I followed the sign to the toilet, which pointed me downstairs and I couldn’t see it anywhere. I was busting! I asked the girl at the bar, to which she casually responded, “It’s just through the bookcase.” Oh, of course, I should have known!

After this, I was promptly dragged into a group of friendly Nottinghamers who led me to The Bodega, where we pulled out all of our dorky dance moves to the retro hits for hours. I hadn’t had this much fun (alone) in a long time.  After four hours’ sleep, I was up, bright eyed and bushy-tailed, and went to Cartwheel for breakfast and a nice coffee before my bus to Birmingham. I wish I had planned on Nottingham being so lovely, so I could have allocated myself more time there.

I spent the day in Birmingham staying out of the rain and browsing the shops in the Bull Ring. I eventually made my way to my AirBnb and had a rest before checking out some of the places on my list. I started at The Stable, where I enjoyed a steak pie and a cider tasting paddle. It was nice to find a place with so many cider options (like a craft-beer bar, only cider!), although I still got that familiar tummy pain I get when I drink more than a pint of cider. I also started feeling sleepy again, so I made a bee-line for Be At One to get myself an espresso martini, stat! I would have tried some of the other cocktails on the extensive menu, but I felt uncomfortable in this environment alone. I mostly felt that way because someone asked, “Why would you come to a place like this if you’re by yourself?”. Sorry, but just because I’m travelling alone, it doesn’t mean I don’t want to try out the cool cocktail bars and things a city has to offer. Back to BrewDog I go. There seems to be one of these pubs in every city I’ve been to in the UK, and I can always count on a good Jet Black Heart to keep me going.

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The ciders @ The Stable. 

Maybe it was just luck, but I just wasn’t getting the vibe from Birmingham like I had the night before in Nottingham. The people were different, and I wasn’t a fan. I went to bed early and had the best sleep ever. In the morning I got a coffee and an avocado and egg brioche roll for breakfast at Yorks Bakery Cafe, which I thoroughly enjoyed. A kind man struck up a conversation with me about breakfasts and music, and gave me a nice send-off of Birmingham before I left.

Had I been in the wrong mindset the night before? Is that why I didn’t enjoy my time in Birmingham? Were my expectations too high because Nottinghamers were so welcoming? Or are Brummies just not my kind of people? Or was it because I wasn’t wearing my Dylan shirt? I guess the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind…

 

*Side note* On the way home I picked up a copy of Amy Schumer’s book “The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo” and I finished it in the one day (which I don’t do very often nowadays). Some parts were hilariously entertaining, but some parts where she talks about what she’s been through are so sad and frightening. Every girl should read this book! She has some very interesting perspectives on life and body image which make you really think.

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Lisbon Adventures feat. Coeliac

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For somebody who enjoys finding quirky craft beer bars wherever I travel, I was forced to change my ways a little when my gluten-freegan* of a sister came to visit. From the beginning I could tell that travelling with her would be different, discovering that McDonald’s here had gluten-free McMuffins (gasp!).

*A family joke to describe the Coeliacs amongst us.

Arriving in Lisbon, we climbed the stairs to our fourth-floor apartment in Chiado, before enjoying a late lunch at our mum’s new home of garlic prawns (I think she went there each one of our 8 days), Carmo. After a little wander, Mum retired to the apartment and my sister and I went to discover some great cocktails at Red Frog Speakeasy, an underground bar that creates creative cocktails to enjoy in a quiet and cosy environment. I ordered the Spiced Rusty Cherry (pictured below), which came out on a block of wood that was smoking, infusing the cocktail with a woody aroma I could taste with every sip. My sister’s choice arrived with a jalapeño on the side. We stayed for another round, enjoying the no-phone rule, and our view of the bartender making his wonderful creations.

 

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Image borrowed from the Red Frog Facebook page.

In the morning we discovered Fabrica Coffee Roasters, where we went nearly every morning before exploring the beautiful city. Mum was desperate for Portuguese custard tarts, so we headed to Pastéis de Belém to fetch some of the originals. We had to make a Coeliac stop-off at Zarzuela Pastelaria to stock up on custard tarts sem glúten on the way.

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The next few nights followed the same pattern, with Mum going to bed early while my sister and I discovered the cool bars around the city. I had been dying to try Duque Brewpub, which was three minutes from our apartment, but they didn’t have any gluten-free beers or ciders, so we went to a cute little wine bar around the corner, where we sat on giant corks and enjoyed a drink. We wandered around the neighbourhood and ended up at Delirium Tremens Bar where my sister was presented with not one, but two gluten-free beer options. I scoured the pages of local and international beer options, but after some time I decided to have some Delirium while I was there. We sat surrounded by the pink elephants for hours, singing along with the staff to their great music playlist. I’m always impressed when a bar has the matching beer glass for all their taps beers, and this one even had every single matching coaster. The bartender even gave me a few different Delirium coasters to take home for my collection.

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The cutest taps ever.

I was thoroughly impressed by some of the local Portuguese beers I came across, especially those with creative names like Twist and Stout, Born in the IPA, and Mick Lager by Musa. Also worth mentioning: Letra, and Dois Corvos. There were so many others that I didn’t get a chance to try, but I highly recommend Duque Brewpub for all your Portuguese beers. Not far from there, also with a great selection of bottles, is The Beer Station. Many a small bar had local craft-beers available, so I can’t list them all! I was excited to go to LisBeer also, but it seemed every time I was in the area it was closed.

If you’re feeling like a break from beer, you have to go to Pop Cereal Café, where they’ll whip you up a great treat from their huge selection of cereals and toppings. I chose the Fruit Loop concoction from the menu, and it did not disappoint! On top of that, they also offered a large selection of gluten-free options, and the staff were super helpful in explaining which toppings were gluten-free.

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Aside from that, we went to Copenhagen Coffee Lab, which was fantastic, apart from the Scandinavian prices. For awesome burgers accompanied by nice cocktails, “to burger or not to burger?” is not a question. In close proximity as well as competition is The B Temple. Both of these have gluten-free options available. I also recommend trying out some of the food options inside the Mercado Da Ribeira while in Lisbon. If you have the time, you should get to Sintra and Cascais, and you can even stop at Cabo da Roca in between to see the western-most point of Europe.

All I can say is don’t go to Portugal on a diet. It’s just not going to happen. If you’re a Coeliac, however, you’ll be just fine. Most people speak English well, and most places have a good knowledge of sem glúten. One more tip: when a menu states no pão it doesn’t mean no bread…it means on bread. We learnt that the hard way.

An Un-Guide to a Spontaneous Madrid Weekend

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When your friend asks you if you’d like to join her for a weekend trip to Madrid, you say hombre, claro. If, like me, you finish work early on a Friday, you should aim to get into the city just in time for the typical 9:30 P.M. dinner with a local. I happened to know one through our previous contact in Logroño, so I was in luck. We feasted on cachopo: “A gooey meat feast from Asturias, Spain,” according to The Guardian. It’s a combination of steak, ham, and cheese, which is crumbed like a snitty (which pleased my Aussie gut immensely).

After dinner and a gin-tonic, I was left to fend for myself in Lavapiés, so I made a bee-line to the closest craft-beer destination. I can almost sniff them out nowadays (not really…I use Google Maps to ‘star’ the cool joints before my trip. Genius.). The lucky bar that got the pleasure of my presence this lovely evening was Chinaski, where I enjoyed a couple of nice stouts and accidentally joined a Couchsurfing meet-up due to a fellow Australian accent that stood out in the crowd. I had also walked past Madritallica earlier (yes, it utilised the Metallica logo on its sign) and I’d planned to go in for a beer later, but it will have to wait until the next Madrid visit.

In the morning, make sure you head straight to Toma Café. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. Order one of their creatively lovely pan options and enjoy your beautiful coffee. Grab a bag of beans to go, if you’re that way inclined (like me).

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Strawberries, goats’ cheese, and sunflower seeds. Can’t go wrong.

By this time, feel free to make your way towards the Plaza Mayor to meet your friend, who is due to arrive on her bus at anytime. I recommend standing at the statue in the centre of the plaza. That way, while you are waiting, you can photobomb everybody’s photos and have a good laugh. When your friend arrives after figuring out the Metro (go, Jill!), make your first stop Chocolatería San Ginés, where you can catch up over six churros and a classic Spanish hot chocolate combo for €4 each.

Next, if your body is ready, go to the Mercado de San Miguel and squeeze through the crowds and enjoy some great Spanish food and drinks. We thought we should make it a complete tourist day and fill ourselves up on sangria and paella. Walk off some of your new kilos on your way to the Palacio Real de Madrid, and detour past the Catedral de la Almudena. Pay the donation (€1 is sufficient) and check out the wondrous ceiling inside the cathedral. If you have access to them, bring along those special belay glasses that allow you to look up without moving your neck (if you have no idea what I’m on about, check them out here. I need some for cathedrals, honestly.).

Spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the streets, and don’t be afraid to indulge on the occasional mojito. Wave goodbye to your friend in the afternoon and head to your next hostel, which you may need to do if your trip is spontaneous like mine, and the place you stayed the first night doesn’t have any beds available for the second night. I stayed in U Hostels the second night, which I was really impressed with. If you didn’t sleep well the first night, now is your chance to have a quick siesta before Saturday night gets underway.

I was conveniently located near Tierra Burrito Bar and I got there around 8:30, just before the line snuck its way out the door. After my scrumptious pork burrito, I was on my way to The Stuyck Co to enjoy some nice craft-beers, when I bumped into my friend from the night before! It was such luck that I had to follow his group of friends to their destination, Macera Workshop Bar, a bar that creates a huge number of specialty gins, rums, and more. Set in a really creative space that draws in the hipsters by their perfectly pruned beards, Macera uses the process of maceration to create the wonderful flavours of their drinks. I recommend the Rojo Fruto Ginebra (with tonic, of course).

 

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Photo taken from the Macera website (their photography is much better than mine).

Once you’re finished here, feel free to have an early night, or check out one of the many bustling bars in the area, then let me know what life is like at that hour. If you had an early night, you’ll be up for a Sunday morning breakfast and coffee at HanSo Café in Malasaña. If you still have an hour to kill, don’t miss La Bicicleta Café, where you can bathe in the hipster essence a while longer, sipping your short-black and listening to The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Elvis. If you want to hipster-up even more, ride your bicycle there, or take your sketchbook to keep yourself from looking like an outsider.

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I’ll leave you here. I have to tend to my succulents whilst listening to a band you’ve never heard of.

-Monet

A Music and Craft-Beer Guide to País Vasco

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Long story short, I moved to País Vasco in October of last year. I’ve been living in a town of 600 people in the Basque province of Álava. I’ve learnt some words in the local tongue (Basque, or ‘euskera’) and I have discovered some places to get my music and craft-beer fix that I’d love to share with you.

Logroño

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El Dorado, Logroño

I’ll start with Logroño, even though it´s technically not in País Vasco. It’s my closest city so I’ve spent the most time here. The first bar that caught my eye was El Dorado on Calle Portales. I heard Bob Dylan playing and I was won over by the decent craft-beer selection. The music alternates between jazz, rock, and the classics, like Dylan and Springsteen.

Just last week I came across Café Odeon. They were cranking Guns ‘n’ Roses, and their four craft-beer fridges definitely caught my eye. The staff here are super friendly, too. I sat between a Bob Dylan poster and a Led Zeppelin one, and I noticed an electric guitar hanging from the ceiling. It’s close to El Dorado, so you’ve got time to try both before heading to Thursday night Pinchato on Calle Laurel.

As for concerts, I’ve never been to any around here as I can’t get home afterwards, however I’ve heard great things about Biribay Jazz Club.

Vitoria-Gasteiz

Vitoria (Gasteiz in Basque) has a cool punk-rock feel about it. The medieval city is full of Basque men with rats’ tails and hoop earrings, and the great music that comes with Basque culture. The first place I’d recommend is El Parral, a vegetarian restaurant by day, and a great little music venue by night. With frequent free gigs that range from traditional Basque folk bands, to rock, to ‘power pop-rock’ (whatever that means!), it’s a music paradise. Get in early if you want a good spot.

For bigger gigs, including international acts, check out Jimmy Jazz Gasteiz, the local spot for all your rock and metal needs (among other genres).

While you’re in town, grab a great coffee with a sweet treat at Fresa y Chocolate. The staff here are great, and it’s perfect for relaxing while waiting for the bus! If you like enjoying a nice vermouth with your pintxos, don’t miss Dazz.

Bilbao

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Penguin Bar, Bilbao

Even after three visits, I still haven’t accomplished all of the things on my Bilbao list, (partly due to everything in Europe closing on a Sunday). The first place I must mention is Penguin Bar. With 16 craft-beer taps, it’s definitely worth a visit. Head in after lunch if you like your beers quiet, or go after dark for a bustling local vibe. Morrocotuda was a nice stop for a beer from their decent selection, but Penguin still has my vote. There are a few on my list that I haven’t had a chance to check out yet, but let me know if you have! La Catedral de Cerveza, a craft-beer store, and  Bihotz, which looks like a fantastic spot for beer and coffee.

I would love to get out to Laugar Brewery one day. It’s not in Bilbao, but they have brewery visits available if you can get there (bookings required). A bus would take a little under an hour from Bilbao.

The only concert venue I’ve experienced in Bilbao so far is Santana 27, and it didn’t disappoint. They have so many bars so you won’t have to worry about a line, and the lockers located throughout the venue are much easier than the traditional cloak-room.

If you like cupcakes, you have to go to Mami Lou Cupcake, a cosy Belgian bakery by the river. Without a doubt, the best cupcake I’ve ever had! The coffee was not half-bad either, and they do have a few nice Belgian beers available.

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Mami Lou Cupcake, Bilbao

Donostia-San Sebastián

Before we head into San Sebastián, I want to stop about a 20 minute train ride away, at Basqueland Brewing Project. This one is on my to-do list, and they offer brewery visits (bookings required). Another local brewery, about 35 minutes by train from the city, is Bidassoa Basque Brewery.

Now, heading into the centre, I recommend checking out the quirky neighbourhood of Gros. Here you’ll find Kañabikaña, a craft-beer shop where you can purchase beers from one of their 18 taps to take home. Just around the corner you’ll see Mala Gissona Beer House, stocking their own beers as well as a great selection of national and international beers. Their burgers are fantastic, too! If you get sick of beer, check out Holly Burger for a nice selection of interesting gins which have been flavoured in-house.

For amazing coffee and breakfast, don’t go past Sakona Coffee Roasters.

Feel free to comment your music and craft-beer findings!

Cheers!

Monet

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Kañabikaña, San Sebastián