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Book Review: ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafón October 24, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews.
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shadow-of-the-wind

When I first saw Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s popular masterpiece, The Shadow of the Wind, at the local bookstore, I was immediately drawn by the book’s unique title and its plain but intriguing cover illustration.  However, it wasn’t until my fellow blogger at theninthdragonking recommended it that I decided to give it a go.

I just finished it today and all I can say is ‘wow’.  This guy, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, can really write, and the translator Lucia Graves (who converted the book from its original Spanish), can really translate.

The Shadow of the Wind is regarded as a tribute to 19th century gothic novels, something I admit I have never read before.  It tells the story of a young boy in post-Civil War Barcelona, whose life is changed forever when he comes across a rare book written by an obscure author who disappeared under mysterious circumstances.  It is a coming-of-age story about books, love, friendship and fate, with just a hint of the supernatural.  At times it is frightening, and other times it can be heartwarming, shocking, gut-wrenching – sometimes all at once.  It is the type of book that makes you want to read it again immediately after you finish it.  It is the kind of novel that gives you goosebumps.

I don’t think the The Shadow of the Wind falls within any specific genre.  I guess I would simply call it good, old fashioned story-telling.  The narrative just blew my mind.  The words spilled off the page and into my imagination.  The pacing was superb, the mysterious plot unfolding with atmospheric tension and suspense.  Zafon makes you believe in his characters, and each one of them has a story to tell.  The clear standout for me would have to be the charming, hilarious and loyal friend of the narrator, Fermin Romero de Torres, one of the most memorable characters I’ve ever come across on page.

If I have anything negative to say about the book, it’s that sometimes it gets just a little too melodramatic.  A bit too over the top.  If a lesser author attempted the same thing, it would probably be a disaster, but Zafon, for the most part, manages to pull it off.  Another minor complaint is that some of the subplots were a tad too long and unnecessarily complicated.  I guess you could say it’s a part of the book’s charm but because of that I felt the story dragged on a bit, especially in the first half of the book.  For me, the second half of the novel was utterly unputdownable, so by contrast the first half was slightly weaker.

Ultimately, a great read, and from a writer’s perspective, terrific to learn from, in particular for characterization and building suspense.  I am already looking forward to picking up the ‘prequel’ to The Shadow of the Wind, the recently released The Angel’s Game.

4.5 stars out of 5

Ultimate European Adventure Round-Up! July 10, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Travel.
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Sensational Palatine Hill in Rome

Sensational Palatine Hill in Rome

One of the main reasons I decided to come to the UK to study (rather than say the US) was so I could get to visit and travel around Europe (something I had not done before but had been a life-long dream).

I have done a couple of round-up posts before after long trips (see ‘My European Adventure Round-Up’ and ‘My Big Fat Greek Adventure Round-Up’), but since I have left Europe now, I thought it would be good to consolidate all the places I’ve visited over the last 9 months and deliver my final judgment.

Here are the places I visited:

(a) England – London, Cambridge, Oxford, Bath, Salisbury, Avebury
(b) Italy – Rome, Venice, Florence, Pisa
(c) Vatican City (technically a country and a city)
(d) Greece – Athens, Santorini, Delphi, Arachova, Hydra, Poros, Aegina, Milos, Corinth, Mycenae, Nafplio
(e) Ireland – Dublin
(f) France – Paris
(g) Belgium – Brussels, Bruges
(h) Netherlands – Amsterdam
(i) Spain – Barcelona
(j) Germany – Munich, Berlin, Fussen (Neuschwanstein), Freiburg (Black Forest)
(k) Switzerland – Basel, Lucerne
(l) Sweden – Stockholm
(m) Denmark – Copenhagen
(n) Austria – Vienna
(o) Czech Republic – Prague

[Note: I didn’t count Frankfurt in Germany as I only stopped there for transit (twice) but did exit the airport]

108

In Bruges

Favourite places:

In terms of countries I would vote: (1) Greece; (2) Italy; (3) Germany.

Greece is simply incredible with its plethora of well-preserved archaeological sites and mythology, but is also one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited with its marvelous islands and beaches. Italy is similar in some respects, and gets extra marks for the number of attractions it has on offer (and its proximity to the Vatican). Germany, on the other hand, is very underrated, with wonderful, historically rich cities such as Munich and Berlin as well as terrific attractions such as the Black Forest, Neuschwanstein Castle and Dachau Concentration Camp.

Individual places are too hard to vote on as each location has its own flavour and strengths. Further, some places are big while others are small, and the differing lengths of time I stayed in each place may play a decisive role. It’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges sometimes.

However, if someone held a gun to my head I would probably pick: (1) Santorini; (2) Rome; (3) Athens; (4) Paris; (5) Amsterdam; (6) Venice; (7) Munich; (8) Stockholm – though the order might not always be the same.

Santorini

Santorini was my favourite

Least favourite places

No prizes for guessing that Prague was my least favourite city (see my rant here) but at least I can say that I may have just had some bad luck with my experiences and that I didn’t spend enough time there. Now London, on the other hand, has no excuses.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with London because I visited the place at least a dozen times during my 9 month stay. There are lots of things to do and see there, and the British Museum is a must-visit, but the exorbitant prices, poor service (they just don’t care) and the absolute filth and over-crowdedness just about everywhere (and especially in the Tube) would drive me insane if I lived there!

Prague Castle From Afar

Prague Castle from afar


Most/Least Expensive

Just about all of Europe is expensive compared to where I come from. It got to a point where if I tried to convert the currency I would probably just start sobbing uncontrollably.

But in any case, the ones that stood out for me were obviously London, Switzerland (as a whole), and in particular the Scandinavian cities of Stockholm and Copenhagen.

Cheapest was definitely Prague, but I think Italy was not too unreasonable. In Greece it depended on where you went (the islands, for example, were relatively more expensive compared to Athens).
Best/Worst Food

Another tough one because I probably didn’t get to sample the best/worst food each place had to offer. Hence I’ll just try to recall the best foods I can remember.

Number 1 has to be the calzones we had in Barcelona. Damn they were bloody good (Can Conesa at Jaume I). Number 2, the hotdogs (from portable street vendors) and ice cream we had in Copenhagen (see more at this post). Number 3, the some of the pizzas we had in Italy.

Copenhagen Marble Church

Copenhagen's Marble Church

As for the worst, this is probably a little unfair because I ate there quite a bit, but London has some extraordinarily bad food (though to be fair, as well as good food), but you just don’t expect something so bad for the prices that you pay.

Most Romantic

Easy top 3: (1) Venice; (2) Santorini; (3) Paris. Three very different places with different charms, but all great for a romantic weekend or getaway.

Venice

Most Romantic: Venice

Top 15 Attractions

This is probably the toughest of them all. My list started with 5, then 10, then 15, then got to 20 (and could have gone to 25) before I cut it back to 15.

In the end, I decided just to go with gut instinct on this one. Note that while Santorini is, as a whole, one of the best places I visited, it’s not really an ‘attraction’ per se. Also important to note is that I love archaeological sites, museums and memorials, so keep that in mind when you read on.

Counting down:

15. Dachau Concentration Camp (in Dachau, near Munich) – a highly depressing place to visit but also one of the most important and informative. It wasn’t exactly enjoyable but it’s one of those places you’d be glad to have experienced.

Dachau

Depressing but worthwhile: Dachau

14. Rosenborg Castle (in Copenhagen) – one of those unexpected gems with a neat little castle, beautiful gardens and a well-managed sea of flowers. A great place to have a picnic or just to chill out for a couple of hours.

13. La Sagrada Familia (Barcelona) – this freakish, still-under-construction piece of art created by Gaudi is either loved or hated. But either way, it’s hard to keep your eyes off it.

12. Roman Baths Museum (Bath, UK) – the site of the ancient Roman Baths, where much of it is still wonderfully preserved. I went there twice and I can tell you that it has been newly renovated and has improved on its already exceptional audio guide.

11. Nea Kameni (Santorini, Greece) – Fira and Oia are beautiful, and the Red and Black beaches are spectacular, but if I had to pick an ‘attraction’ from Santorini, the volcanic island of Nea Kameni is it! Take a 90 minute walk up to the top and back – even in the heat it is well worth the experience of seeing the destructive power of the volcano up close.

Santorini Volcano 2

Nea Kameni in Santorini

10. Tivoli (Copenhagen) – the famous theme park has a splendid carnival atmosphere. The entrance fee does not cover the rides, but you don’t need to go on a single one to enjoy the place, especially when it gets dark and the coloured lights illuminate the fairground. Magical!

9. The British Museum (London) – if nothing, London has tremendous free attractions, and they don’t get much better than the enormous British Museum. If you race through it you can probably see it all in half a day, but to truly appreciate how much priceless stuff the Brits stole from just about every other culture in the world, you’ll need at least a full day, if not 2 or 3.

8. Anne Frank House (Amsterdam) – Amsterdam may be best known for its weed and girls, but the highlight for me was the Anne Frank House, in which you can get to see where the legendary Anne Frank and her family once hid from the Nazis. Yes it can be depressing at times, but it is also quite uplifting too to read Anne’s touching words and see just what a magnificent and insightful writer she was. One can only imagine how many great writers must have perished in the Holocaust.

7. Vasa Museum (Stockholm) – the Vasa sank on its maiden voyage and was not salvaged until 333 years later. Today it forms the centerpiece of the exquisite Vasa Museum, one of the most unusual museums I’ve ever been too. I loved how you could get a different view of the Vasa at each level of the museum, from the bottom all the way to the top.

6. Neuschwanstein Castle(Fussen, Germany) – no wonder this is the number 1 attraction in Germany and has been for so long. It’s the type of place you can go a couple of times during different seasons, because I hear it’s a different feel with and without the snow (I went with a bit of snow during early Spring). The walk up to the castle itself is just magical, and the inside is worth a look too.

Neuschwanstein 009

Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany

5. The Acropolis (Athens) – I would have never thought that I’d rank a single monument so high, but the Acropolis has captivated my imagination ever since I was a child, and seeing it up close in person at last fulfilled a life-long dream. Even with the scaffolding along the sides and back it still takes the breath away. Now with the Acropolis Museum opened it will be even better.

4. The Louvre (Paris) – the best art museum, one of those humongous places that can take days to full appreciate. With limited time, I only got to see the main masterpieces (the most high-profile ones, at least – and there were many), so I look forward to going back there someday and seeing the rest.

3. Vatican City (Vatican City) – (I’m calling it an ‘attraction’ because it is small enough) regardless of your religion, Vatican City is one of those places that you just need to see, even if it’s just for the amazing artworks painted on almost every empty space on the inside. St Peter’s Square and St Peter’s Basilica are also some of the amazing places within the world’s smallest country that left my jaw ajar many times.

2. Palatine Hill (Rome) – the archaeological site next to the Colosseum is one of the most fantastic I’ve ever seen. Just use a bit of imagination and thousands of years of history will unfold before your eyes! Make sure you head up to the top around the outside wall to get a full view of the site.

1. Archaeological Site of Delphi (Delphi, Greece) – the centre of the world, up in the mountains, where the oracle once sat – the enormous, well-preserved archaeological site of Delphi is a remarkable place that is well worth the journey from Athens (if that is where you’re staying). There’s a lot to see and absorb and enjoy, so take your time and really use your mind to envisage what it was like 3,500 years ago in Ancient Greece.

Delphi 1

Delphi Archaeological Site is No. 1

Well, that’s it. I’ll probably disagree with a lot of what I just wrote the next time I look at it, but right now, these are my thoughts.

Pizzas we had in Italy! (with pics) April 22, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Food, Travel.
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Rummaging through some more photos from our recent European adventure I came across a common theme: Pizza!

So I thought I’d post some of the pictures we took of the pizzas (and calzones) we had throughout Italy.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get photos of all of them.  These were the only ones I remembered to snap before we devoured them!

First off, Pisa – it was our first day, fresh off the plane, and we stopped for a short visit to see the Leaning Tower.  After much wandering we settled on this touristy-looking restaurant and sat outside, with the Tower still within our sights from where we ate.  We shared a sausage pizza, which was average, a tad on the salty side.  We also had a ham and mushroom calzone.  Those who follow my Travel Diary will know that I had the best calzones ever in Barcelona, so when I saw calzone on the menu I just about flipped out.  Unfortunately this was a traditional calzone (unlike the ‘gondola’ style ones I had in Barcelona) and it was surprisingly bland (though still salty).  6/10 for the pizza and 5/10 for the calzone.  They weren’t bad, but this was Italy, and my expectations were high.  Check out the pics below.

A Pizza in Pisa

A Pizza in Pisa

Ham and Mushroom Calzone

Ham and Mushroom Calzone

Next stop, Florence – where we went into one of these little pizza shops on the side of the street, lured by the tasty smells emanating from their ovens.  This place sold squarish pizzas, and they sold it according to weight (I believe).  We had ourselves a square pizza (either sausage or meatball, can’t recall) and a calzone.  This place was about half the price of the Pisa restaurant but was much tastier.  8/10 for the square pizza and 7/10 for the calzone. Photo below.

Square Pizza and Calzone - cheap but tasty

Square Pizza and Calzone - cheap but tasty

Venice was next, and I’m sure we had more than just the one taken below but I must have forgotten to take photos before eating them – a sign that they were too enticing!  This one was prosciutto I think, and we got it in one of those typical pizza vendors in the narrow streets of Venice near St Mark’s Square.  Very delicious and very big, with a thin base.  Very cheap too, like 2 or 3 Euros a slice!  I’d have to give this one a 9/10!

Big slice pizzas in Venice

Big slice pizzas in Venice

Of course, we ventured into Rome, where we stayed for 4 nights and enjoyed pizza I think almost once a day (what else is there to eat in Italy?).  I know, fat city, but we had to try as many as we could get our hands on.  The two photos below were from this family Italian restaurant on the same street as our hotel, very close to Roma Termini station.  We had a plain Margherita (with garlic) and another, you guessed it, sausage pizza.  Both were nice, but very different.  The Margherita had a very crispy base, and it was simple yet flavoursome.  The sausage one had a thicker base and had cheese on top, but it was a little stingy on the sausage.  I’d give each 7.5/10.

Your plain Magherita in Rome

Your plain Margherita in Rome

Another sausage pizza

Another sausage pizza

Just before we left Rome, we had one last meal at Roma Termini station.  We went for this average, chain-store looking place called Spizzico and got 2 slices there.  Can’t remember the flavours but one was plain and the other had meat with buffalo mozzarela, but both were sensational.  Surprisingly, the best pizza we had on the entire trip!  Hot and juicy and the flavour was simply superb, really hitting the spot.  It was so good that we got another slice (the meat one), but for some reason it wasn’t quite as good as the first, as it was slightly salty.  I guess that just means they’re a bit inconsistent.  Nevertheless, I give their pizzas a 9.5/10 (because nothing’s perfect).  See below.

The best pizza was had in Italy

The best pizza we had in Italy

Spizzico at Roma Termini Station

Spizzico at Roma Termini Station

Lastly, here is a photo of another pizza was had, but it was taken in Freiburg, in the South-Western corner of Germany (in the Black Forest), so technically it doesn’t belong here.  We had this at a restaurant near the train stration that was supposed to serve both German and Italian food, but it was all Italian from what we could tell…Nevertheless, we had this one with 2 types of meat and mushrooms.  It was okay, a bit on the oily side (evidence below).  Clearly not up to the Italian standard.  I’d give it a 5/10.

Pizza in Germany too

Pizza in Germany too

We haven’t had pizza for a while…

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