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!

The long road home….

I’ve heard some people comment about being bored these days as we are on lock down. I believe in Spain we are now on the 16th day. As my doctor ordered, I can’t even leave the front door of my apartment for the allowed reasons so I look out onto the street from my balcony and windows. I can see the Sierra Nevada Mountains freshly covered in snow. The road up to the Alhambra is now completely still except for a public bus every few hours and the streets are silent except a random masked and gloved neighbor coming home with groceries. Police cars patrolling and a random dog walker. However, I have not been bored even for a second. I cook and write and do exercise and give some online yoga classes and enjoy other great classes along with concerts and virtual visits to many places. I was trying to remember the last time I was actually bored I couldn’t come up with anything really.

And then I remembered being in the town of Manzanares in Castilla La Mancha last August. I wouldn’t call it boring, but definitely peaceful. We spent a glorious 15 days in the Basque Country, both France and Spain. We never want to leave so we push it as much as we can and end up driving at full speed home before vacation ends. Manzanares is a bit over 2 hours from home and as we were getting close we decided we just couldn’t drive anymore. It was hot as hell and we were exhausted.

There is a Parador in Manzanares that by a miracle has not been closed down regardless of its location with a view of the main highway. Paradors for me, mean home. As my friends who work at the Parador in Santiago de Compostela tell me, I’m no longer a “friend” of the Paradors, I’m a sister. Paradors are a chain of hotels in Spain opened in mostly historical or important buildings. You can look on the internet at parador.es and discover more. The page also has a blog where you can find different bits of history and art work and routes through Spain. A couple of weeks ago they closed down all of the paradors and donated all of the food from their restaurants and bathroom amenities to help with the corona crisis.

The Parador in Manzanares was one of the first, opening in 1932. It opened originally as an “albergue” to give truck drivers a place to sleep and eat on this long, empty road. It survived the Civil War and the dicataorship. It is said that in the 1940’s when tourism began the restaurant served lunch to so many tourists that some would have to wait in busses while the others were being served. In 1979 the original albergue closed, reopening in 1980 as a “Parador de Turismo”. The Parador has fought to remain open through financial crisis and more. At first glance this Parador might not seem to be anything special. However, our short stay here was perfect. Our room looked out on the swimming pool and garden and everyone was incredibly friendly, from the front desk to the bar and restaurant. We decided to have a light dinner in the hotel due to the blazing heat and to avoid the walk into town. We are also big fans of all Parador dining. The Maitre D in the restaurant was so lovely. He made us feel like the only people in the restaurant. He invited us to a glass of sparkling wine from the local wine producing area to accompany our tapa of partridge paté and chips.

One of my all time favorite dishes from Castilla La Mancha is Pisto Manchego. My very favorite is at a place called La Venta de Quijote in the sleepy town of Consuegra. I have been stopping there for years with groups and their pisto along with the one here at the Parador are both outstanding. Pisto is a mixture of sauteed vegetables which can vary depending on the area and the chef. The original recipe is made with tomatoes, green peppers and zucchini chopped and without the seeds. Sauteed with a good amount of olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. It can be used to accompany fish or meat or on its own served with a fried egg or two on top.

If you ever find yourself in Manzanares in the dead of August when most bars are closed and the heat is unbearable please go to the Queso Manchego Museum. Manchego is one of the most well known cheese’s worldwide. Not be confused with Mexican Manchego cheese which is similar to a Monterey Jack, true Manchego must be prepared with whole Manchego sheep’s milk and aged for at least 60 days in one of the designated provinces of Castilla La Mancha. You can find four different types of Manchego: fresh, semi-cured, cured and aged. There are 26 Protected Designation of Origen (DOP) producing different types of cheese in Spain. We have an incredible variety to work your way through in this lifetime. However, Manchego is usually the one that most visitors know about before arriving in Spain thanks to our dear friends, Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quijote.

The museum is run by friendly, young people from Manzanares. You can visit for free or pay between 1 to 2,50 euros for a tasting of cheese and wine. The museum walks you through the history of Manchego Cheese dating back to the Bronze Age. It has informative plaques that explain how the cheese making has changed throughout history and also how it forms such an important part of Castilla La Mancha and the cuisine in this area.

Manchego Cheese is sliced in triangles and served as a perfect tapa with bread and wine. Add some local olives to complete your appetizer. Many times you will find it served with a quince paste that pairs perfectly with the nutty flavor of the cheese.

Another part of the museum is dedicated to temporary and permanent art exhibitions. It is like a little added surprise after you walk through the area about the manchego cheese. The temporary exhibition that we saw was a beautiful tribute to the Spanish Poet, Federico García Lorca and the Bullfighter, Ignacio Sánchez Mejías. Lorca was from a town close to Granada, Fuentevaqueros, and was assassinated in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. He was a renowned poet, playwright and theatre director. Mejías, a bullfighter from Sevilla and friend to poets and poetry, died after being gorged by a bull in his comeback bullfight in 1934. He had slept and eaten his last dinner the night before at what is now the Parador de Manzanares. He was remembered by many poets in their works but probably the most well known is by Lorca, Weeping for the Death of Ignacio Sánchez Mejías.

The entire temporary exhibition was absolutely beautiful. A wonderful tribute to many different Spanish poets as well. After we finished our tasting of cheese and wine we went for a hot walk and had lunch at one of the few open restaurants before driving home to Granada. We found this beautiful hotel which is now closed. It was all more than worth the stop!! A great break in our long drive home.

Time Out!!!

The sun came out for a bit! Streetcar in Lisbon.

We have been eating 100 percent vegetarian at home for the past couple of months. I was a vegetarian for so many years that it is easy to slip back into this way of life. We are usually pretty veggie centered but going 100 percent has brought me back to some great recipes like Tofu Tikka Masala, Vegetable chili with TVP and an amazing Creamy Braised White Bean recipe that I found in the New York Times. It has also reminded me of a few of the last great meat and seafood dishes that I enjoyed. Not craving, just reminiscing. Some of these were on our last trip to Portugal. I’ve been missing Lisbon a bit these days knowing that I won’t be there every few weeks this Spring like I have been for the past 10 years or more so I’m reminded of this awesome meal we had a few months ago at the Time Out Market.

Quiet street in Lisbon, only in late November.

We love going to the Time Out market when we have some “us” time to enjoy the city. The Ribeira Velha market was the original market in Lisbon dating back to 1100. It was located at the foot of the Alfama neighborhood. The market was rebuilt and moved a couple of times. One of these times being after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. The structure we find today located in the Cais do Sodré district was inaugurated in 1882. It functioned as a fresh foods market for many years. The newly restored Time Out Market opened here in 2014. It is now home to the original fresh food market along with kiosks and shops selling regional specialties with some owned by a few of Lisbon’s most famous chefs. It’s a gastronomical festa in a lively and enjoyable space. I’ve enjoyed many great meals here. For a few years I was addicted to the Tuna “prego” Sandwich at SeaMe, an excellent seafood restaurant. I still highly recommend it!

Prawns with Rosemary

On our last visit to Lisbon in late November it was cold and raining when we arrived. The streets were empty and dark. I hadn’t seen Lisbon like this for quite a long time and it reminded me of a novel I had read recently, The Day of Atonement by David Lis. The warm market was quiet and welcoming and we found a romantic spot at Balcão da Esquina. I’ve always loved Tasca da Esquina, one of the great restaurants by Chef Vítor Sobral, and Balcão is his place here in the Time Out Market. To start with, we went for some amazing Sautéed Prawns with Rosemary and Red Chilis (the malagueta chili). Forget about not eating bread as this sauce begs for the dipping.

We followed the prawns by one of the best dishes I have been served in a very long time. Bísaro Pork with Clams and a Cilantro Sauce. The clams were absolutely perfect and the sauce was earthy and light. But, the pork!! Oh dear, that pork was so darn good that we could have ordered one more plate. The whole dish was fantastically cohesive. And, we also learned something new. The Bísaro pigs are Indigeneous Portuguese pigs. They were actually close to going extinct because of the African plague as because the Iberian pigs were being favored. They come from a Celtic origin and reside mostly in the province of Tras-Os-Montes (see post New Years Eve in Tras-Os-Montes) where they are used in traditional dishes and to make many types of sausages in order to keep their meat year round. If you go to Lisbon and you are a meat eater and cilantro lover please go try this dish.

Oh, and the wine!! We ordered, of course, the wine with the chef’s name. First, a glass of white with the shrimp and then a red from the Alentejo region made with Touriga Nacional, Aragonez, and Trinacdeira grape varieties. Both went perfectly with our selected dishes.

Obviously we could not get out the door without a Pasteis de Nata, (egg custard) and a glass of port wine. I prefer my pastel de nata with only cinnamon but the traditional way to eat the custard is with cinnamon and powdered sugar. Everything about this evening was worth the walk in the rain. Like many cities, Lisboa has a special charm in the winter, and for me it feels more authentic during the quieter months. The grey skies make a perfect backdrop to this colorful city.

A place to return to someday……part 1.

Just a bit less than half way to North America when leaving Lisbon you will find one of the most beautiful archipelagoes in the Atlantic. The Azores or Os Açores in Portuguese consist of 9 volcanic islands and is one of two autonomous regions of Portugal. The other being Madeira. Most people choose to visit the islands between April and November when the weather is at its best and you can enjoy the numerous beaches and hiking on the islands. Our favorite time to travel is the off season when the crowds are less and you can easily distinguish the locals from travelers so we went to the Azores for New Years and the first week of January a couple of years ago.

It tends to rain in January but the sun came out quite a bit and allowed us to hike and have some beautiful views as we discovered the island of São Miguel. This is one of the first three islands that were initially sighted and discovered in the 14th and 15th centuries. The first inhabitants to the islands were actually sheep who were placed there to eventually feed the first settlers who included the Portuguese mostly from the Algarve and the Minho, the Flemish, the French, and Sephardic Jews amongst others. When the Spaniards temporarily took over Portugal in 1580 they also wanted the Azores. It is said that cattle were released by the Azoreans to confuse and scatter the invaders. Still today we found more cows than humans on the Ilha Sao Miguel which for me is just perfect! They filled our photos at every scenic outlook and blocked the roads.

One of my favorite places on the island was Sete Cidades , which is the name of a town and also a spectacular nature area. It is probably one of the most beautiful panoramas I have ever seen. There is a viewpoint where you can look down on the two lakes that fill in the center of a volcanic crater. Lagoa Azul reflects the blue color of the sky and Lagoa Verde reflects the rich green color of the earth. Hiking in this area is greatly rewarded by a local lunch in the town.

Everything we ate during our stay was excellent. All diary products were superb from the milk to every cheese that we tasted, especially the fresh cheese served at the hotel breakfast and the Queijo São MIguel which is easily found throughout the mainland as well. Beef was aplenty and we had a few amazing dishes from simple to fancy. They also produce great wines to accompany the local food. Wine production has nearly doubled here in the past years, most of it being produced on the Island of Pico.

I had never tasted a “limpet” before the Azores. It is like an aquatic snail with a cone shape. We tried the limpets at a restaurant right on the beach. They were grilled and served with lemon. Simple and plentiful. Maybe not my favorite dish but it was fun to taste them. I definitely need a second try on our next visit.

After lunch we walked through the small and obviously poor town of Rabo de Peixe. We stumbled upon a solemn funeral procession of a young man from the town. The air was heavy with humidity and grief. Everyone was dressed in what must have been their best clothes, paying their regrets to the loss of a young life. I remember the feeling in this town more than I remember the taste of the limpets. The obvious poverty and solemness was very different from what we had experienced up until this moment on the island. Real life and death. To be continued……

History, music, tension and ham…

Every January 2nd, the celebration of “La Toma” takes place in the plaza of the city hall in Granada. January second marks a historical moment for Granada and for the entire country of Spain. January 2nd, 1492 marks the day that Boabdil, the last Moorish King of Granada, handed the keys of the city to the Catholic Monarchs Isabel and Fernando. A couple days later after Boabdil had gone into exile they entered the city through the Elvira Gate and made their way up to the palaces and compound of the Alhambra. This moment in history marked the end of the last Moorish dynasty on the Iberian Peninsula and also the uniting of Spain as a country. A few months later on March 31st the Alhambra Decree was passed demanding the expulsion of all practicing Jews from the country. They were given 3 months to leave.

To commemorate this yearly act they bring in “La Legión” to the city of Granada. Francisco Franco was the founding deputy commander of La Legión in 1920 and they served an important role in the Spanish Civil War serving the Nationalist side. Since then, they have been deployed to different areas such as Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Presently they participate mostly in NATO peace-keeping missions. They are also known for their extraordinary band playing its well known anthem and marches. The commemoration includes a parade, Holy Mass and visitation of the tombs of the Catholic Monarchs in the Royal Chapel. In all of my years living in Granada I had never attended this celebration. I luckily miscalculated time yesterday and found myself caught in the middle of this on my way up to the Alhambra. Just in time to watch La Legión departing the gates of the Royal Chapel and listen to their marches.

If we look back on history appropriately we will easily see that the culture we enjoy today is thanks to the important different civilizations that have lived on the Iberian Peninsula and in Granada. Accordingly, there is also a counter celebration of our democratic and plural society in which we live today. This act includes the reading of a manifest about coexistence and a tribute to Mariana Pineda, a 19th century heroine who fought for liberal rights. I have attended different celebrations throughout the years. Concerts, multicultural parades and talks given by history professors.

The tension in this years celebration was accelerated by the attendance of our new extreme right wing political party, VOX. Comments made by their Secretary General such as, “the reconquest of Spain is not over yet and will continue” provokes more altercations than usual on this conflictive day. However, this is not a political blog so we will continue on with history.

Once the crowds dispersed I was able to continue on with my original plan for the afternoon which was to make it up to the Alhambra. It was a gorgeous sunny day and on January 2nd they open the doors to the alter in the Gate of Justice. It is only opened once a year for a few hours and I had never made it up until yesterday. The altar was constructed in 1588 and was placed where the first Catholic mass was supposedly held in the Alhambra. On the upper and lower sides we find images of Saint Francis, Michael the Archangel, Isabel and Fernando. In the center we find an image of the Virgin Mary and below her an image of St.James represented as a warrior in the Battle of Clavijo. which is a mythical battle between the Christians and the Moors.

On January 2nd the entrance to the Alcazaba (fortress) of the Alhambra is free for those who want to make it up to touch the bell in the highest tower, La Torre de la Vela. The legend here says that all single women who touch the bell will be assured to find a partner during the coming year. I chose to take advantage of the free entrance to the Alcazaba and climb up a couple of towers to enjoy the beautiful views that they allow. The line was growing for people wanting to touch the bell and enjoy the highest tower so I just enjoyed the sunshine and the fantastic views of two of my old neighborhoods. I later found out that the line was longer than usual because one of the bell ropes had broken and needed to be mended, oops!

Line to go up to the Torre de la Vela.
View from the Alcazaba

As I walked back down into the city I found the normal holiday atmosphere that fills the streets of Granada at this time of year. Families and tourists wandering about and flooding the outdoor terraces to enjoy some free tapas and lunch. Today however, I saw some rolled up flags leaning against the tables, obviously used for the celebration. The city center during the holidays can be quite full, especially with this sunny weather. However, neighborhoods like mine provide a more relaxed atmosphere and some of the best tapas. Our favorite is just on the corner by our house at La Noticia. Roasted ham on a rotisserie served with tiny pickles and bread. It doesn’t get much better that that!

In line for lottery, churros, cod………

Line for Bocadillo de Calamares at La Campana, just off Plaza Mayor.

We always find ourselves in Madrid during the holiday season. Whether it is to take a plane somewhere or to take Luna to her Grandmother’s town we always spend a couple of nights here to enjoy the lights and holiday madness. I usually avoid crowds at all costs and I get to spend plenty of time in Madrid throughout the year to enjoy the city but Luna and I still love being here at the holidays. We wander around to see all the lights and decorations at night, enjoy our favorite Chinese restaurant for lunch and our usual breakfast each morning. Exhausted from the wave of humans we usually have dinner quietly in our room with a movie or Masterchef Junior which airs during the holidays.

dispenser for numbers to buy lottery tickets at Doña Manolita

One thing you will find in Madrid at the holiday season are thousands of people standing in lines and near to them, many tourists standing about wondering why these people would be spending hours in each line. To the foreign eye some might be fairly obvious but many are not at all. After 25 years I’m still completely entertained with these lines. Luna and I made it a game this year to find the most interesting ones.

The longest line you will find is for the Doña Manolita lottery sales. Lottery is a big deal in Spain and at the holiday season it takes on a completely different dimension. In December we have “el gordo” which refers to the largest prize that is given out in the Christmas lottery. That would mean the “fat one” in Castellano. Every December 22nd in every bar, on every television and radio you hear the school children from San Ildelfonso in Madrid singing out the winning numbers and prizes. This Christmas lottery started in 1812. Doña Manolita is where the most winning tickets have been sold and so each year people try to get a ticket from here. It is located on one of the busiest pedestrian streets in the city. The line for Dona Manolita goes all the way around a city block and you can either choose to stand in line or try to get a numbered ticket from the machine and be advised by a text message when it is your turn however these tickets run out very early each morning. They even have security guards to make sure that people can still enter the local businesses and hotels that cross with the line. On January 6th we have the lottery “el Nino” since it is held on the day of the epiphany, the arrival of the three kings to visit baby Jesus. This is also the most important day of the holiday season in Spain. On the night of January 5th the Three Wise Men arrive to every city and even smallest town in Spain with artistic parades, tossing hard candies and bearing gifts for all, especially the little ones.

With your hope of winning the lottery now in hand it is time to get some traditional Madrileño snacks. But, don’t be in a hurry because you are sure to find a couple more lines. The “bocadillo de calamares” is the most famous sandwich in Madrid. There are many favorite places and each person has their preferred choice. “El Brillante” near the Reina Sofia Museum is a popular place but if you are up near the Plaza Mayor you have quite a few options where you can enjoy these perfectly fried squid rings on a baguette with a squeeze of lemon or mayonaise, ALWAYS accompanied by a cold beer. Stand in line to grab your sandwich and then find a bench or simply stand around at an outside high table to enjoy your snack.

You are not even closed to finished after that sandwich. You must get in line at Casa Labra just off Calle Preciados near Puerta del Sol. Casa Labra has been here since 1860 and is known to be the place where the Spanish Socialist party (PSOE) was first formed in 1870 by Pablo Iglesias Posse. Nowadays everybody stops by here to stand in line for the excellent fried cod (called tajada de bacalao), cod croquetas or marinated tuna accompanied by a nice vermouth. It also has a gorgeous restaurant serving a great variety bacalao, such as the one with oyster mushrooms and capers. In Spain don’t ever be turned away by all the crunched up napkins on the ground. This is a sign of a great place to eat. Things have changed a bit in past years but all good bars used to have a layer of dirty napkins on the floor.

You are not even close to full enough! Once the sun starts going down and the air gets colder in Madrid it is time for the best treat of all, churros y chocolate from San Ginés. To make the time in the lines a tiny bit shorter, the Chocolatería San Ginés has different places all in the same tiny pedestrian street, including one in part of the major discotec that is next door. This chocolatería was opened in 1894 and is visited by thousands of people each day. So, get in line and prepare your stomach for some more fried Spanish goodness. You can choose the long thinner churros but our preference are the porras which are a bit fatter and lighter, dipped in the thick chocolate of course!

Line for churros and doors to the Joy Eslava discotec next door, open for churros as well.

Once you have your lottery tickets and your stomach nice and full from sandwiches, fried cod and churros you can move on to other lines if you wish. One extremely long line is for the Cortylandia which is the holiday musical presentation outside the Cortés Inglés department store. You can also visit the messengers for the Three Wise Men waiting for your gift requests. And, if you are feeling like some ramen you can now wait in line at one of the Japanese noodle shops here in the center of the city as well. There are lines for all types here in Madrid at the holidays. Like we say in Castellano, “Para gustos, colores”.