Laura's Vacation Blog

Saturday, September 28, 2013

La España

Spain: A food lover's dream come true.

Justin and I both knew that we were going to eat well in Spain and this country did not disappoint. 

Let's start with the jamón--which was present in just about every meal we ate. Every bar, cafeteria, and restaurant had a leg hanging from their ceiling or set up at the carving station. It was served thinly sliced and with a fat that literally melts in your mouth. Yum!

And if you weren't in the mood for jamón, there were plenty of other pork products in which you could indulge in...salami, sausages, cochinillo (roast suckling pig).

And the olives: always green, with or without pits, salty, tangy and delicious. These were served up at lunch and dinner with food or as a starter. Besides olives, there were all sorts of other cured and pickled goodies like carrots, peppers, pickles and artichokes. Yum!

And the cheese: Manchego (firm, buttery, sheepy) was the specialty but we had lots of fresh goat cheese and even a little Camembert which probably wasn't Spanish but was tarted up with some Spanish pepper jelly. Yum!

And the fish: a lot of cod but plenty of tuna, salmon, anchovies and shellfish. Where we were, fried fish was on nearly every menu and we got a little crazy with the boquerones (fried anchovies). Every city had a market where several fishmongers sold their catches.

And the wine: It is delicious and inexpensive. Reds were from mostly from the Rioja region, whites from all over (I was particularly interested in the Alboriños which were very refreshing in the heat). Cavas, Txakolis, Rosados...we tried them all. And then there was the Sherry...great as a vinegar, but neither Justin nor I really loved this wine but we conclude this only after plenty of samples! One of my favorite drinks was the Tinto de Verona which was a red wine and lemon soda cocktail, similar in flavor to sangria.

And then there were the miscellaneous regional dishes like salmoreja and gazpacho, potatoes in spicy sauce, chickpeas and spinach, croquettes. Think of anything delicious and Spain probably had some version of it. Yum!
Assortment of salmoreja soups.

So that was the food we ate; let's get onto how we spent our time when we weren't eating.

Saturday, September 15
Arrived in Madrid in the early evening and spent the evening scoping out the tapas joints near the Plaza Mayor.

Here's Justin with a tapa of tuna fish on our first night. This was my first attempt at practicing my Spanish skills and I was pretty nervous because the bar was very loud and busy.

Sunday, September 16

We packed a lot into this one full day in Madrid. We started at El Rastro which is a giant flea market with lots of interesting things to look at, although nothing too interesting to buy. By noon, we had made it over to Plaza Mayor and started scoping out the market at San Miguel which was AWESOME. It was a large building with about two dozen food stands inside that were all selling prepared food/tapas. You order a plate of fried peppers from one guy, a few fish tapas from another and grab a glass of wine from another and find a counter to eat it all. There was so much selection and everything was so well done. We finished lunch and headed over to the large park, Parque del Retiro, and cruised the gardens and found an impromptu bluegrass band jam. And then we took a siesta before dinner.

About 40 years ago my father traveled to Spain and this summer when he visited me in Seattle, fondly recounted his memory of the cochinilla (roast suckling pig) that he ate there. A quick google search turned up the restaurant "El Botin" in Madrid which he believes is the same place he ate at so long ago. So of course we had to try to repeat this was certainly an excellent meal.

San Miguel Market

El Rastro flea market crowds

 Bluegrass band at the park

Waiting for our meal in the basement at El Botin.

Cochinilla from the oldest restaurant in the world.

Monday, September 16

The train left early for Sevilla and by mid-morning we were smiling in sunny Southern Spain. We spent an hour or two strolling the neighborhood and then we borrowed bicycles from the hotel and biked out to the Plaza de España and the Parque de Maria Luisa. Being our first day in the south, we didn't realize how hot the day gets around 3pm and specifically why the shops all close and everyone takes a siesta around this time but it was crystal clear after the first day. We got in the spirit with the siesta on many of the following days of our vacation. The Plaza de España is a building from the 1920s that was the showpiece of the Spanish Americas Fair showcasing Spanish industry and crafts and is now used for government offices.

The Plaza de España

Tuesday, September 17

Sevilla's Alcazar is a lesser rival to the Alhambra but pretty amazing nonetheless. There are beautiful and tranquil gardens and exquisite detail in the Moorish architecture that characterizes this place. Unlike the Alhambra, the Alcazar was built by the Moors working under Christian rule so it isn't quite as ancient. We spent the entire morning here and then poked around the Barrio Santa Cruz immediately following. The big attraction to the Barrio Santa Cruz is the whitewashed houses and narrow streets but this neighborhood was overrun with tacky tourist shops and overpriced restaurants which is a shame.

 A coy pool in one of the patios in the Alcazar

Some of the very detailed carving and tile work in the Alcazar

The royal gardens of the Alcazar

Wednesday, September 18
Sevilla is home to the largest cathedral in the world. I'm actually curious if Spain is home to the largest number of cathedrals in the world because you could barely turn a corner without bumping into another church, almost all of which are Catholic. Neither Justin nor I are that interested in Catholic religious history and antiquities so we skipped most of the church site seeing but we did want to explore the "largest". Some of the interesting things in this cathedral include the tomb of Christopher Columbus, an amazingly large pipe organ, beautiful arched ceilings and a 360 degree view from the top of the minaret turned bell-tower. As with much of the grand architecture we admired in southern Spain, the Moors had built something first and the Christians came along and retrofitted it for their own use. 

The ceiling of one of the ceilings in the cathedral

The tomb of Cristóbal Colón

A view of the cathedral and city beyond from the top of the Giralda (bell tower)

Thursday, September 19
Justin and I planned a day-trip to Jerez de la Frontera to see an Andalusian horse performance and visit the Sherry bodegas. We took the bus down in the early morning and had our first chocolate con churros breakfast which was a good start for a day of drinking. I had seen the Rick Steves videos on Spain and was especially intrigued by the dressage show at the Royal School of Equestrian Arts. The horses really look like they are doing a choreographed dance. The show was pretty amazing and I left wondering who was more talented, the horse or the human rider. These horses hopped around on their back legs and then leaped into the air and they could trot around the arena to a drum beat like soldiers marching in formation. After the show, we walked around the block to the Sandeman bodega for the afternoon tour and tasting. It was pretty interesting to learn how Sherry is made and how important yeast (flor) is to the process. Unfortunately, my palate isn't a huge fan of the yeasty flavor that Sherry has but I did find that the sweeter cream Sherries were more to my liking than the dry finos. Sandeman put on a little flamenco show during the tasting which was interesting and helped settle our indecision on whether we should seek out an evening show (no).

No cameras allowed but I sneaked a photo of the horse ballet!

Sandeman's bodega on a hot afternoon

I had booked a late return bus to Sevilla so we had prime siesta time to kill. Justin and I walked over to the Gonzalez Byass bodega to see if we could tour the grounds. The gate was open and no one was around so we let ourselves in and browsed around. It was so nice without tourists mobbing the place. I'm pretty sure we weren't supposed to be there but we did no harm and left before anyone was the wiser. 

Friday, September 20
On our last day in Sevilla, we toured the Torre del Oro (Tower of Gold) and the famous bull ring. The Torre del Oro is a small naval museum housed in a small building next to the river with good views from the top. I believe that gold used to be stored here centuries ago. 

I went to the bull ring with an open mind, hoping to better understand this cultural phenomenon. It is pretty much what I perceived it to be: a ring where bulls are tormented before they are killed. Although, I didn't realize the bull meat is sold for food so at least his death isn't a total waste. The museum in the bull ring had many artist's renditions of the bullfighting including much of the gore that goes with this spectacle. I hope that some day Spaniards will stop advancing this activity and find more humane ways to both entertain themselves and obtain their food.

 The Torre del Oro

The museum at the bull ring

The Sevilla skyline at night--Adios

Saturday, September 21

Granada is a city in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. On our first day and evening in Granada, we headed into the Albaicín, exploring the "little-Morocco". We stumbled across a really fun band playing this ska-like jazz music in one of the plazas. We climbed up to the viewpoint and had a drink which turned into dinner. The views of the Alhambra from this site were pretty amazing.

The Alhambra in the twilight 

Little Morocco

Sunday, September 22
We went to the beach! Beautiful Salobreña.

Monday, September 23
The Alhambra is Spain's jewel. Built mostly in the 11th century by the Moors, this amazing palace is truly a place for royalty. Like the Alcazar in Sevilla, the Alhambra has beautiful geometric tile mosaics and engravings but they are so much more extensive and well preserved. The gardens are amazing. We had such an amazing day touring this monument.

Tuesday, September 24
Our last day in Granada, we popped back up to the Alhambra but went to the gardens of Carmen de los Martines. These are community gardens on the property of an old grand mansion that has been donated to the City of Granada. In the afternoon we went to the Arab bathhouse which were several pools of water varying in temperature that you dip in and out of, taking a break for a cup of tea. 

The palm lined terrace with an elegant fountain at the gardens

A slightly blurry selfy at one of the many tetarías in Granada's Albaicín. It was too hot for tea so we had to order tè helado. 

Wednesday, September 25
Justin and I spent the last couple of days of our trip in Córdoba. We took the bus from Granada and had a little trouble navigating the public transit but eventually got to the hotel, dropped our luggage and went exploring. The first day we toured the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos and the gardens surrounding. The buildings served as a prison during the Spanish Inquisition, a piece of history that is very present in Córdoba. The buildings were not as well preserved like earlier sites we had seen but the gardens were pretty magnificent. 

The Alcazar viewed from the tower with the Roman bridge in the background.

The gardens, viewed from the tower

The ruins of the baths in the Alcazar with star shaped windows for light

 Some very carefully pruned shrubs

The pools were so lovely as was this view.

Thursday, September 26
By this point in our trip, we had fully adjusted to Spain's timezone and then some but we were up relatively early to check out the Mezquita. In other countries, the early bird has gotten us the worm and some very private opportunities to visit the sites without a lot of other tourists. However, Spain seems to get going around 10am and just about every tourist is up by then. So, even though there were just a handful of people in the ticket lines before us, there were throngs of tourists when the gates opened at 10am. 

Like many of the other sites we visited, the Mezquita had a similar tale: built by the Moors, captured by the Christians and renovated. However, this site was an interesting intermingling of the two cultures. There's a little Moorish religious architecture mixed with a little renaissance cathedral. Over several decades, the Moors built up the Mezquita as a mosque for up to 14,000 worshipers. The engineering of this building was pretty advanced for the times with running water and sanitation systems. Then, in the 1200s, the Christians conquered the city and converted the building to a Catholic church. Over the years, the church has embellished the cathedral adding chapels, a fancy ceiling, organs and other religious necessities. 

In the afternoon, Justin and I visited the Jewish quarter where no Jews really live any more but did before the Inquisition. There is a small synagogue that survived the expulsion in the 1400s that has some of the same type of decorations as seen in the Alhambra and other palaces. 

The Moorish arches in the Mezquita with their red and white stripes.

The cathedral part of the Mezquita

The Calle de las Flores which should have been more impressive then it was...a lot of dead flowers :(

The Jewish synogogue with the intricate stone carving details.

Cordoba's old city wall, what's left of it.

The old defunct waterwheel that used to move water to the Mezquita.

Friday, September 27
Hasta luego Cordoba and Spain.