Before the pandemic I had started my own little tradition of taking early morning walks in all the cities where I sleep. I love the peace and the silence at this time of day. Each city has a unique feel when it is empty, and it takes on a different personality. A few weeks ago I went for a long walk through the empty streets of Bilbao. There was hardly a soul on the street and none of the bars or cafeterias were open yet. It was so pleasant that I walked for much longer than I had planned.
As I walked that morning I was bombarded with different memories from my countless visits to this city. My thoughts included nights out with friends in the Casco Antiguo, walking to the Guggenheim for dinner with my groups, getting a cast put on my leg in the local hospital, drinking Txakoli with colleagues and sharing my love for this part of Spain with so many people.
I have been blessed to travel with many people who have touched my heart in different ways. Many have repeated tours with me or have come back to visit. We communicate through email and I receive holiday cards from them by snail mail. Several have become close friends and I think of them often. Throughout the pandemic so many of these people went beyond what it means to be caring and generous and it brought me to tears on occasions. I have thought about my guests and prayed that they have were healthy and safe throughout the past two years and I get worried when I don’t hear from them.
In Spring 2016 I had a mini group within one of my groups. During the welcome dinner in Lisbon they came up and asked me to guess which of the six of them were blood related. From that moment on we had a permanent connection. On one of our free nights in Bilbao they invited me to dinner at one of the Michelin star restaurants, Extanobe. Unforgettable doesn’t even begin to describe that evening filled with laughter, friendship, storytelling and amazing food. There are some guests that seem to emotionally adopt you and you are connected for life.
After each tour is over I receive many emails from my guests. This email is from one of those amazing people who I shared dinner with in Bilbao.
None of us will ever forget you. Nancy and I had been to Spain four times to Spain before that trip. Yet you took a wonderful trip and made it the trip against which we we measure not just trips to spain but all others. So to us, you are unforgettable. We all hope to see you, your husband, and beautiful daughter someday in San Antonio.
Nancy says she gets hungry every time she reads one of your stories.
Con abrazos,Al and Nancy Karam
P.S. I still remember the first words I said to you, “I already don’t like you because you live in Granada and I don’t!”
On my birthday last week I received a message that Al had passed away. My heart broke in two as I took myself back to the memories of his kind smile, laughter and all of the stories that he shared with me. We had a special connection.
“Margaret, here’s a little thing you may find interesting. We first arrived in the evening in Granada on our first trip to Spain summer 1994, our 25 anniversary . Since it was our anniversary, we had a room in the Hotel Alhambra…uh…what was the working class Leb. boy doing in this hotel? Since we were just relaxing we went to the grounds and started walking around for about an hour or so. There was hardly a soul there. We later learned that the place was closed and how were we able to sneak in? No sneaking, just walk into, I think, the Fatima gate. Ah… to be young and unknowing.” Al Karam
I will never forget you dear Al.
In loving memory.
Many years ago I saw a movie called Atún y Chocolate. It is the story of three fisherman from the town of Barbate in the province of Cádiz. It is a comedy about these three men who are trying to survive a fishing crisis. That was my cinematic introduction to one of my favourite areas in Southern Spain. I had visited Cádiz on my way to Portugal a few times but I didn’t have a good understanding of the people and culture until about 17 years ago. Thanks to a dear relationship with a person from the town of San Fernando in Cádiz, I was immersed into this beautiful area of Spain. The food is amazing, the beaches are incomparable to others, the history is deep and intriguing, and the people are the friendliest and funniest I have found. The jovial and passionate accent accompanies these affable traits.
Cádiz is one of the oldest and continuously inhabited cities in Western Europe. It was founded by the Phoenicians in 1100 BCE and its strategic location on the Atlantic Coast has marked a spot in the history of Spain and the rest of Europe ever since. You could easily spend days visiting monuments and learning about the history of the city and province. The yellow/gold dome of the New Cathedral is a symbol of the the city’s Golden Age it experienced in the late 17th and 18th centuries. The contrast of the dome with the blue Mediterranean Sea and sky is absolutely beautiful. The Theater (only a portion of it is has been excavated) was one of the largest in the Roman Empire. I love to wander the narrow streets and visit the market where you can get a glimpse into the gastronomy of the area, heavy on fresh tuna and other seafood.
One of my favourite times to visit Cádiz is during Carnaval which is one of the biggest in Spain. This is a completely different experience. For two weeks you can enjoy the Chirigotas, satirical folksongs often using political figures as the focus. The streets come alive with floats, musical groups and gaditanos dressed up in their best costumes while drinking glasses of dry sherry from small cups and munching on fritters made from little shrimp. These are called Tortillitas de Camarones and are made with chickpea flour, baby shrimp, parsley, chopped spring onions and GOOD Spanish olive oil. VIVA EL CARNAVAL!!
Another important gastronomical treasure in this area is the Atún de Almadraba. The word almadraba meaning to fight or strike comes from Arabic and refers to the fishing technique used to catch this highly prized red tuna. After the full moon in May and again in September and October fishing nets are strategically placed in the Atlantic waters close to the Straight of Gibraltar by fisherman from towns like Barbate, Zahara de los Atunes, Conil de la Frontera and Tarifa. The tuna are caught in the nets on their passage to or from the Mediterranean. The nets are lifted by the fishermen into a circle of boats surrounding the nets. In May the tuna have extra fat and are more succulent where as in the fall the tuna tends to be drier. The fall meat tends to be sent to the canneries. The tuna from the month of May is sold at high prices with about 80 percent being exported to Japan.
On my most recent trip to Cádiz we had an excellent lunch in a restaurant called La Marmita. The local wine was 80 percent Merlot with a small percentage of Petit Verdot and Syrah. I loved the name, Garum. Garum is the fermented fish condiment that was used in Phoenicia, Greece, Rome and beyond. With our wine we enjoyed the high quality red tuna prepared two ways, sashimi and tartar. Exquisite. We also had raviolis filled with pringá de Berza Gitana. This is a stew prepared with collard greens, onion, squash, tomato, peppers, chorizo, morcilla and beef shank. It is then chopped finely and used to fill the raviolis. I can’t wait to go back and repeat both dishes and more!
Two of my other reasons for being truly in love with Cádiz are…………..
Yes, you can start the Camino de Santiago here! This part of the camino is called the Via Augusta, which was the longest and busiest of the Roman roads that connected the Pyrenees and France to what is now C´ádiz.
And…………you can enjoy the most beautiful sunset in Spain! One that just keeps on giving.
Side note – The title of the film I mentioned at the beginning refers obviously to the famous Almadraba Tuna. Chocolate? Chocolate is the word used for hash that for many, many years has found its way to the coastlines of Southern Spain from Morocco.