Art, architecture and food art in Bilbao….

I miss the Basque Country even when I am there for work every few weeks. It has now been almost 8 months and I am having serious withdrawal for pretty much everything Basque. Today I was reminded of two of the best things to have ever touched my lips. And I mean that, because they provoked a feeling that is difficult to describe in words. These are only two of many amazing dishes I have had in the Basque Country.

Bilbao, or Bilbo in Euskera, is the city of my dreams. I loved Bilbao even before the Guggenheim was built when it was still a bit gritty and grey around the edges. The casco antiguo has always intrigued me with its Catedral de Santiago, Plaza Nueva, winding streets and fantastic pintxo bars. I remember wandering through those streets on my first visit to Bilbao and taking in its bohemian feeling, an industrial city still struggling to exist. But, nowadays Bilbao is one of the most fascinating cities in the world. A true example of class, elegance and ingenious infrastructure. The Guggenheim and the Andoibarra neighborhood neighborhood surrounding it are phenomenal. Its streets will welcome you to pasear and take in the fascinating architecture and green parks that it offers. And don’t forget to eat. Eat a lot. Remember, you are in the Basque Country. https://mooninspain.com/2015/08/18/tourist-remember/

Cordero Deshuesado en el Guggenheim Bistro

Inside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao you will find two restaurants. One is Nerua, a Michelin star restaurant where I hope to dine one day. The other is The Bistro which you fill find at the level near our friend, Puppy, by Jeff Koons. Here you only need to order two items off the menu. The roast deboned lamb and a torrija for dessert. The roast deboned lamb is a masterpiece served with a squash purée and it will make you want to kiss the chef. A work of art worthy of a photo.

Amazing torrijas by my daughter, Luna.

Now, the torrija. For a bit of background, in Spain we eat torrijas during the Easter holidays. You will find them in every pastry shop, especially in Madrid. Traditionally it is stale bread soaked in either milk or wine, dipped in beaten egg and fried and sprinkled with cinnamon. One might compare it to french toast. This year my daughter was unable to visit her Abuela in Madrid for easter so she took it upon herself to prepare a large plate of torrijas that she has become accustomed to consuming during that visit.

Torrija con helado de queso, Guggenheim Bistro en Bilbao

Now, the Guggenheim Bistro takes the torrija up about 20 notches or more. It is pan fried and carmelized and served with ice-cream. The flavor of the ice-cream can vary but my very favorite is when it is served with an “helado de queso“, ice-cream prepared with a local cheese. This takes the torrija from an ordinary local pastry to something sinful and provocative. It is the torrija of all torrijas and you will never forget it. I hope they never change the menu at the Bistro.

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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