Simple is delicious and welcoming…..

For most people travel is a major adventure. A way to experience new cultures, people, food and traditions. Is there anything more exciting than the unknown? I love to get lost in a city, to order from a menu without really being sure of what will be served to me, or to miss a bus or train and hang out in a sketchy station waiting and people watching. However, many travel for business. They look for comfort, good wifi and on time transportation. In my work I get to enjoy a combination. I return to the same places year after year and they feel like home to me. But, I get to share the excitement of seeing it through the eyes of travelers who are experiencing something or a place for the very first time.

Some people need to follow a routine when they travel. Most people in my business tend to feel comforted by repetition. The same meals, drinks, repeating the same hotel room and the same walks during free time. It gives you a sense of home and stability which we lack when traveling many months out of the year.

I find my peace in the warm smiles of the friends I encounter while I’m on the road. Being welcomed with open arms and great conversation keeps me feeling at home when I am very far away. Besides that, I try to mix some spice into my routine. Discovering new restaurants or a far off neighborhood on my walks are a couple of my favorite things to do. I rarely repeat a meal. I have a friend who almost always goes to the same restaurants and orders the same dishes. Not me. Well, not usually anyhow. I secretly have a couple rituals of my own.

When I pass through one of my favorite cities in Galicia, Pontevedra, I always meet up with a friend who lives there. It has become our routine. She catches up with me just as I’m finishing a walk with my group. We sit outside at a local bar and enjoy a wine or beer and one of the great free tapas they give to you in Pontevedra. At one of my favorite places they always have some type of stew as the first tapa; garbanzos, lentils or white beans. Sometimes her family meets meets ups with us as well, especially if it is a Sunday. And many of my colleagues who travel with me have enjoyed this time together as well. A close friend and colleague of mine has repeated many times with us.

There is nothing like a great Tortilla Española in Galicia. It is one of the places in Spain where I always love how it is prepared. It is never dry or flat. It is jugoso and soft and shows the color of perfectly fresh eggs. In Pontevedra I systematically order a tortilla española and polbo a feira (Galician prepared octopus) for this lunch that is enjoyably filled with philosophical conversation. The boiled octopus is served on a wooden tray with boiled potato, olive oil and spicy paprika. Perfect with a local white wine, Ribeiro, traditionally served in a cunca galega. I would transport myself to Pontevedra right now and hug my friend Yayi tighlty before we began our sacred ritual.

Ribeiro Wine as it should be served

And she sleeps……

The Alhambra quiet in quarantine

I was in Seattle for a summit when the Coronavirus first hit the news. There was one patient already detected and being treated at a local hospital. At one of our meetings we were greeted by the COO of the company, “there is now a strange virus from China and the first case in the US is right here in Washington. Welcome”. His charismatic humor was welcoming and innocent. As we all were.

Two months later as all of my tours were slowly being cancelled and I was helping my oldest niece get out of Spain before the borders closed, I started to become conscious of what had begun that day in Seattle. The reality started to set in little by little. And then the impossible happened, the Alhambra closed. The Alhambra. The Red Fortress. Qa’lat Al Hamra. Closed. Gates locked. Silenced in all her glory. Empty of tourists, busses, local guides and groups. The hotels and restaurants are closed and boarded up. The gypsies have gone home with their rosemary and Diego is no longer there soliciting groups for the flamenco shows. The Alhambra had gone to sleep.

The Generalife, summer palace of the Alhambra.

My relationship with the Alhambra is long and deep. On my very first night in Granada over twenty years ago we went up to the rooftop terrace of a friend’s apartment and I met the Alhambra for the first time. She was my solid introduction to Granada. A few days later my friend Kerri and I rented an apartment in the Albaicín neighborhood with a perfect view of the Alhambra from our little balcony. We lived on Calle San Juan de los Reyes, known then as la calle de las putas. I would walk to class everyday and wave hello to the prostitutes sitting out on their chairs waiting for customers, mostly older gentleman from the neighborhood. They would be casually sitting on their chairs in the narrow street in front of their doors , enjoying a cigarette and café con leche. In the late afternoons we would greet each other again, their café now replaced by a vino tinto. I used to see Rafael chatting with the ladies quite a bit. He was well known in the neighborhood and a couple of friends lived in the same building as Rafael so he had become a close aquaintance. A character to say the least, with his rough voice from smoking the black Ducados cigarettes for most of his lifetime. A true Albaicinero. I no longer see prostitutes when I walk down my old street but those memories stand clear in my mind.

Walking up the Cuesta de los Chinos

From that first apartment I used to go for a daily run down the Cuesta de Chapiz and up the Cuesta de los Chinos to the Alhambra. The Cuesta de los Chinos used to be called the Cuesta del Rey Chico, named after Boabdil, the last Moorish King of Granada. I would run up past the San Jose Cemetery to the Silla del Moro, which used to be a guard’s outpost for the summer palace in the Xlll century. In the Springtime I would come across older gentleman picking fresh asparagus for their lunch or taking a break under the olive trees. These runs were my escape from the city, all social activity and the struggle to understand the thick accent of the Granaínos. The Alhambra gave me piece of mind and serenity then as it still does today.

The beautiful blossoms of a pomegranate tree

The entrance into the Alhambra was free on Sundays when I first moved to Spain. Nowadays, this is an unbelievable memory of mine. The hours and energy I have spent trying to purchase tickets to the Alhambra for groups over the years is exhausting to event think about. And to imagine that I used to stroll up there every Sunday with my books to spend hours studying in the Generalife and simply wandering about the palaces is amazing. I clearly remember reading one of my favorite books, A La Sombra del Granado by Tariq Ali, as I rested in the gardens. No tickets and no lines. Back then the security was also so low that we could even sneak into the summer palaces at night through a hole in the fence. A couple of my friends had grown up in the area of the Alhambra and they knew every way to enter. One night we even went through one of the secret tunnels below the city. These tunnels were used during the Nasrid Dynasty for inhabitants of the Alhambra to enter and exit without being seen. They are all closed off by gates now so we were lucky to have those wild adventures. We would have the summer palace to ourselves sitting under the stars. It was like the lyrics from a Joni Mitchell song.

The full moon over Sacromonte in May, 2020

When I lived in Sacromonte, the cave neighborhood across from the Alhambra, we had an outdoor terrace with a panoramic view of the Alhambra. On the second floor of our home there was also a loft bed, with a perfect view, that we named la cama de la reina. The Queen’s Bed. The Alhambra was the first thing I saw in the morning when I slept in that bed and my free time was spent reading, writing or drinking wine on that terrace. The Alhambra was the backdrop to my daily life for those years. It is still our favorite place to take a walk. Up the Cuesta de Chapiz, into Sacromonte to pass by my cave house and then up the Cuesta de los Chinos to the Alhambra.

She’s resting now, our dear Alhambra. Similar to the years when she was abandoned in the 18th century. But soon she will reopen and we will again feel her vibration over the city. Enjoy the peace for now elegant lady. This type of calm never lasts forever.

Alhambra and Granada May, 2020

From Cod to Albacore….

Bacalao al Pil Pil with a Gilda

My legendary Italian Nana used to threaten us when we acted like little monsters around her house. She would raise her hand with her perfectly painted long nails and wave it saying, “I”m going to give you a Bacalla”!!! I’ve never actually been smacked by that dried piece of salt cod but the image stands clear in my head. For the past 25 years of my life I have spent a lot of time in places where my Nana’s baccala is seen everywhere. Be it Baccala, Bacalao, Bacalhau or just plain salt cod; it is everywhere in Spain and Portugal. My favorite preparation of Bacalao in the Basque Country is Bacalao al Pil Pil. It has only 4 ingredients of salt cod, olive oil, garlic and red chilis. The sauce is made by the jelly released by the fish when fried combined with the oil and the constant movement of the pan. If prepared on a fishing boat, the movement comes naturally with the waves of the sea.

Bacalao al Pil Pil and wine from the market in Guernika

We spend a lot of time in the Basque Country, for both work and pleasure. Gernika is one of my favorite towns on the way to the coast. The weekly market is phenomenal and there are some amazing pintxo bars as well. This summer we visited the Peace Museum for the first time and then were welcomed with a festival of free wine and Bacalao al Pil Pil in the market area. We arrived as it was coming to an end and got the last plate of cod. It was such a perfect visit. We continued on with a few more pintxos and Txakoli, the local white wine that deserves a post all of its own. We had one more balcalao al pil pil at a favorite bar of mine. Served with a “Gilda” of spicy pepper, olive and anchovy it was just perfect. As a sidenote, the name Gilda is a reference to the role of Rita Hayworth in the 1946 film Gilda since it is salty, green and a little bit spicy!!

More excellent Pintxos at Bar Auzokoa in Gernika

The Basques adopted curing codfish with salt from the Vikings sometime in the 9th century but the history of Basque seafaring is long and deeply woven into its people and their culture. They prospered greatly from fishing thanks to the Catholic religion which required people to eat only fish on Fridays, holy days and lent. The Basque coast is dotted with prominent fishing villages like Bermeo, Getaria, Lekeiteo and Ondarroa. In the spring and summer months, if you are lucky, you can catch the fishing boats as they arrive in the ports or as they set sail out into the Bay of Biscay and beyond. Anchovies, Albacore and Blue Finn Tuna are also very important to the seafarers in the Basque Country.

Statue outside of the Jai Alai court in Gernika

This summer we parked Amelie (our van) in the fishing town of Ondarroa for the night. We took a walk through the town and watched the kids (and grown up kids) jumping of slates of wood into the water at sunset. A perfect August evening. Hungry after many stops for swimming at different coves along the coast we decided to have dinner at the restaurant right in front of where we parked our van. They were just firing up the outside grill and we were lucky enough to get a table in what turned out to be one of the best places in town. Asador Erretagi Jose Manuel served us a fantastic meal with warm and congenial service. It was outstanding to say the least. The manager told us how she would make it first to the market every morning to get the best tomatoes possible. The albacore tuna with onions was one of the best fish dishes I have ever been served. I would go back there right now if I could.

Albacore Tuna with Onions Bonito Encebollado

I am missing the Basque Country quite a bit right about now so you will be reading more about it soon. It’s the time of year when I would be spending a lot of time there. I miss my friends , the txakoli and my beautiful hotel. I miss traveling with my family through the Spanish and French part of the Basque Country and enjoying the beautiful beaches, the atmosphere and all the amazing food and wine. I would have been there quite a bit this year and will continue praying for 2021 to take me there many times like it promises. Topa!

Ondarroa

Cazorla, we will take you anytime of year…

I know that so many people are thinking of places they would rather be right now than their own living room but I’ve actually taken to looking at this as a gift. Obviously the economic effects will be brutal but I’m using it as a long needed time for healing and to be with my family at a time of year when I am usually MIA. We are enjoying the time together playing games, cooking, exercising and laughing a lot. We have also been reminiscing a lot about past trips, planning future travels and deciding where we want to run away to first. I would happily walk 1,000 miles right about now. And repeat.

Hiking by the Rio Borosa , 2017

One of the places on our list is in the province of Jaén, and about 2 hours Northeast from Granada where you will find The Natural Park of Cazorla, Segura and Las Villas. This is the largest UNESCO protected area and natural park in Spain made up of 810 square miles. It is one of our favorite places for a getaway that is close to home and offers peace, nature and great food. We have entered the park from different sides but our favorite is through the town of Cazorla, paying a visit to my daughter’s birthplace of Úbeda on the way.

During the summer months it tends to be filled with people so we choose different times of the year to visit. In the dry heat of September the natural park is an oasis with its cold water streams and shaded hiking paths. We love the trail to the source of the Borosa River with its wood plank walkways and waterfalls. But, my favorite hike that we have done was from the Parador of Cazorla to the source of the Guadalquivir River. Most have seen the Guadalquivir River passing through the cities of Córdoba and Sevilla in all of its splendor but the source of the river is found here in the Cazorla mountains.

We have been lucky to spot a lot of the local fauna during our adventures. We’ve seen mountain goats, deer, wild boar and even a friendly wolf. This is also home to the golden eagle, the griffon vulture and the bearded vulture otherwise known as a lammergeier. I’ve become so familiar with the vultures during my travels in the pyrenees so it is wonderful to spot them here in Cazorla as well.

Hiking to the source of the Guadalquivir river, on top of the clouds!

We usually travel in our trusted van, Amelie. She has taken us further than we had ever dreamt providing us with our own hotel wherever we park and homemade meals along the roadside. With Amelie we have been all over France, Spain and Portugal with only a couple of complaints by her along the way. Cazorla is great for this type of travel providing beautiful campsites and gorgeous overnight areas for camper vans.

A littler Luna on top of Amelie, still her favorite spot

However, at the end of a mountain road in Cazorla you will find a Parador de Turismo. It reminds me so much of the Parador in Monte Perdido. At the end of the road and absolutely beautiful. The views are spectacular and they have a gorgeous swimming pool for the summer months. The people who work here are exceptionally friendly and the food is excellent! We have slept close to here in our van many times and also spent a few nights here during a great snowfall. It was the perfect place to be. The Parador has the feel of a mountain lodge with a nice fireplace and the building is similar to an Andalusian country home. The gastronomy is based on seasonal game and local ingredients like figs, thyme, rosemary and quince. Our favorites were the wild boar paté, a local stew made from pasta, rosemary and rabbit and their homemade croquetas. The red wine, Marcelino Serrano, is from the province of Jaén as well.

The town of Cazorla is our favorite in the area. The history here dates back over 2,000 years. There were important Iberian and Roman settlements here and the Moors used Cazorla as a stronghold until 1235 when it was reconquered by the Christians. The Castle of the Yedra towers high over the town. Originally built by the moors in the 11th century, the castle we see today is a Castilian reconstruction from the 13th and 14th centuries. Cazorla is a small town of just over 8,000 inhabitants and has a comfortable family atmosphere surrounding its main squares. Besides enjoying the town and local hikes the best visit in Cazorla is the Church of Santa Maria. You begin the visit in the church and are taken to the ruins below the church and the boveda of the Cerezuelo river. It was constructed in order to build the church above and is the only one in the world like this.

Cazorla and the Castle of the Yedra
The Boveda of the Cerezuelo River and Cazorla above

We have eaten in many different restaurants in Cazorla since one of my dear friends is from the town and gives us great recommendations. Our favorite always remains the same, Mesón Don Chema. It is a rustic place and the ambience reflects the cuisine that is based on local game. We have worked our way through the menu during our many visits. My favorite are the sautéed potatoes and squash that they serve with the dishes. Simple and seasoned with thyme and onions. They have excellent homemade paté and cured sausages made with local game. And an original way to serve them.

We can’t wait to go back to some of our favorite places when things go back to the “new normal”. For now, enjoy being together and dreaming!

CHEERS! One of the best gin tonics ever from Arroyo Frío

Hermano Peregrino……dedicated to Ismael Izquierdo.

“We must never stop dreaming. Dreams provide nourishment for the soul, just as a meal does for the body.” “We always have a tendency to see those things that do not exist and to be blind to the great lessons that are right there before our eyes.” Paolo Coelho

The facade of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. October, 2020.

Six years ago when I started leading a 16 day bus tour across Northern Spain and Portugal I was reintroduced to a deep part of my being. It wasn’t that I hadn’t revisited the Camino since my own pilgrimages, because I had. Actually, many times to different places and in different situations. I had even walked portions of it with other groups in the past 20 years. But, this time it was different for me. We were not walking the pilgrimage and nor was it the name or theme of the trip. We would talk about the history of the Camino de Santiago, stay in the Paradores, Hostal dos Reis Católicos and San Marcos, visit the Cathedrals and see pilgrims all along the route. Being a two time pilgrim and greatly affected by both experiences I wanted to share the other side of the pilgrimage. So, on that very first tour I began to develop a bus chat that what I named “a day in the life of pilgrim.” I wasn’t quite sure how it would be received or even where it would lead to on that first trip. Surprisingly, my personal story rolled off my lips naturally as I shared the accounts of my two pilgrimages in detail; why I decided to walk 500 miles across Spain alone, what daily life is like on a pilgrimage, the miracles that happen along the way, important words and legends, the food I ate and people who I met and who touched me. I share the original books I had used for both walks and my pilgrim passports, a bit worn from their age. My voice cracks a few times as I share this piece of myself and when I look up from the microphone I can see tears in some of my guest’s eyes. The questions and comments are profound and true gifts for me. I’ve had some guests come to me with bits of my talk written down for me to “use when I write my book”. There were 10 years difference between my first and second Camino and 10 years from the second Camino until that first bus tour. A lot has changed in almost 30 years, especially myself.

There are many different words pilgrims use when walking the Camino de Santiago. One that I learned and experienced on my first walk was “Hermano Peregrino” or Brother/Sister Pilgrim. People do a pilgrimage for many different reasons. And these also provide different relationships. For religious people it can be shared between themselves and their God and religion. Other people are seeking to find themselves or have lived some type of trauma or need to make some personal decision. But, there is a third and very important relationship on a pilgrimage that is between yourself and those who walk beside you even if they do so in silence. They will become your Hermano/a Peregrino. An Hermano/a peregrino can also be someone who you meet later on in life that has also done the pilgrimage. You are somehow connected because of this shared experience.

On my first Camino. My “bota’ from Pamplona.

On my first pilgrimage I met so many different people. I was alone for most of the walk so people were constantly adopting and taking care of me. A young North American woman walking alone nowadays is quite common but on my first pilgrimage I was a rare bird or a green cat as a dear friend in Granada would have said. I still remember the people who I shared meals with, walked with for a few days and those that helped me with my blisters. OUCH! My Spanish Grandpas adopted me and fed me in many places along the road and we enjoyed a great meal in Santiago de Compostela with their wives who had met them there. However, at the end of the Camino I had two great Hermanos, Juan and Ismael. I had met both of them at the very beginning of the pilgrimage. Juan, 62 was from Madrid and retired. It was his 10th pilgrimage. He would wake me up every morning, “Margarita, son las 5:10”, and he taught me how to be a good pilgrim. He knew all the plants along the way, the monasteries we needed to visit and what to eat and where. Ismael was just 21, and living in Barcelona. He had started the pilgrimage with a friend who had to leave due to an emergency. His laughter was contagious and we probably had too much fun every once in a while. Like having to leave the massive refuge in a monastery at 1 am because we couldn’t stop laughing. Or sneaking into the refuge in the monastery in Santiago after our late night out, terrified we would be caught by the keepers. I remember having meals at the Parador of Santiago, the Hostal dos Reis Católicos because Juan taught us that the first 10 pilgrims who arrive each day could dine there for 3 days in a row. We ate in the Pilgrim’s dining room and were served with smiles and bottles of local wine. Little did I know that many years later this Parador would become like a second home to me and the people who work here would become dear friends.

Photo of Praza Obradoiro, taken from the Royal dining room of the Parador of Santigao de Compostela

Ismael and Juan became more than Hermanos Peregrinos for me. They were my protectors, my sun in a rainy day and two people who marked me for a lifetime. A relationship that develops after days together, sharing pain and laughter, each one on their own pilgrimage alone yet together is deep and remains forever.

Juan and I visited each other many times. A noble and dedicated family man who found and gifted to me a passion for the Camino de Santiago. He has since passed away. Ismael and I lost contact for a few years until one day he came to Granada and asked every person he could find near the plaza by my house if they knew Margaret, the American. That was Ismael Izquierdo. No social media back then and he had lost my address. He was dedicated to find his Hermana Peregrina. We went out for tapas and he took me to this hard rock bar in Granada. He was a fan of rock music and eventually opened a bar where he was living near Gibraltar. We lost touch again for a few years and on my very first 16 day tour six years ago right after I told our story to my group, I received a friend request from him on Facebook. We remained close ever since. There is a connection between us that no distance or time could tarnish. Except for one. For my heart at least.

My Pilgrim’s Passport from my first Camino. A couple of the many stamps and pages

Last week I received news that left me speechless and tore into my heart in a way that I cannot explain. My dear friend Ismael Izquierdo passed away at the age of 45, leaving two young sons behind. Another Hermano Peregrino has left this world. I’m sure he is laughing wherever he is and smiling down upon us. I will do the Camino again for you dear friend. That you can be sure of, Ismael.

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, clouds and a bit of rain. How Santiago is in my heart.

“You don’t choose a life, Dad. You live one.” Emilio Estevez, The Way.

Sleepy in Seattle (and Edmonds)……part 1

I was so blessed to be invited to Seattle this past January. Right now it actually seems like a dream. Positive energy and uplifting are the words to describe the experience. First of all, I was able to share it all with some very close friends and as a big bonus met so many outrageously friendly people while I was there. Genuine, that is another word to describe my experience those 10 days. Most of the time was spent in Edmonds where Rick Steves Europe is based. It is a gorgeous town North of Seattle and reminded me a tiny bit of Flagstaff, Arizona with a lot more rain. I also got to spend a bit of time enjoying the city of Seattle. I had never been to this part of US so it was like a whole new world for me. Every bit of it. The only reason this is titled “sleepy” is due to the brutal jetlag that I had for days.

The day we arrived was a bit rough after my 3 flights but we managed to get ourselves out and about to eat and enjoy this rocking city. It was Sunday so we were lucky to bump into a great brunch at one of the cool downtown hotel restaurants. My friend had eggs benedict and potatoes and I had an avocado toast with chilis and perfectly boiled eggs and a super spicy bloody mary. Yes, it was after 12. Yum! That was the first of a few I had while in the states. Welcome home Margaret! We made our way to Pike Place Market and enjoyed the fish tossing, great street performers and ambience and then walked and walked enjoying the beautiful downtown area until we finally needed to collapse.

While we were in Edmonds we were taken care of and fed very well. So unbelievably well that even on our free nights we did not need to eat out. We had food from Mexico, Uzbekistan, Korea, England, India, Vietnam and much more. On our last afternoon my friend who has been here many times rushed me over to “The Market” in downtown Edmonds for a lobster roll. They were so good that our conversation completely stopped and communication remained only with looks of serious pleasure as we wrapped our mouths around those delicious sandwiches. I can’t wait to go back and repeat.

Seattle and the Pacific Northwest are obviously known for its home brews. I liked the vibe at one of the breweries close to our hotel in Edmonds and went back a couple of times. Being in a brewery makes me feel like home and takes me back to some great memories in Flagstaff, AZ during my university years. It was extra special to share it with one of my closest friends from Spain who had never had a good brewery experience. Brigids is both a shop and a bar with a great open space with couches and tables to hang out and play games or chat. The bartender was probably a bit confused as to why an obviously American woman would be so in awe and open mouthed when reading the selection of beers. I tried to explain to him that we don’t have this where I live. I’m pretty sure he still thought I was from Mars. Their “Mexican Cake” brew was insane. It was like a meal and dessert in a beer. Chilis and whiskey. Spicy and thick. I went back a few days later for a repeat.

I loved the weather while we were here. I haven’t seen that much rain in an extremely long time. And walking around Edmonds is so beautiful. They are completely inundated with Europeans for 10 days and the people are so welcoming and friendly. We got stopped on the street many times by people wanting to know about Spain (our name tags had the flag) or to share their travel experiences. The rain held back a few times so we could walk along the beach and even see the mountains peaking through the clouds. The area is popular with divers since Edmonds is home to an underwater park with two and a half miles of trails. The train also runs right along the water. Trains and school busses are always two things that quickly snap me into the reality of being back in the US.

Sorry about the detour to the US but I had such an amazing experience here that I wanted to share. Part 2 coming next. I’m grateful to my daughter and partner for supporting me and letting me take off for 2 weeks. And to all the great people at RSE who made us feel so welcome and filled us with positivity and great energy, especially Rick! I even have a new partner in crime based in Seattle.

Oh, and dinner at Rick’s house was especially cool!