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!

More pieces of my “Granada”….

It’s amazing what we do throughout our life to move forward and keep on top of our game. I’ve always felt fortunate that I was obligated to become self-sufficient at a young age and although I’ve crashed a few times and came out with some bruises I won’t ever regret all the experiences I’ve had. When I was working on my Master’s degree here in Granada I did some extra odd jobs to keep myself afloat besides my regular job as a Tour Director. I taught English like everyone does at some point when they first live abroad and I disliked just about every minute. I also took care of my friends little girls and prepared their weekly meals for lunch and dinner. They were quite lucky because at the same time I was working on my fresh pasta business, so they enjoyed homemade ravioli, tortellini, linguini and spaghetti in all variants. A great friend came to live in Granada at this time and we worked on this business together. Using my large living room as our factory, rolling out kilos and kilos of fresh pasta to sell the next day and collapsing at 2 am in front of a bowl of some awesome pasta and sauce that we had created ourselves. It wasn’t easy work. There was a wonderful woman Paquita, who had a fruit store down the street from my apartment. As a small business owner herself she took me under her wing and sold the pasta from her shop in exchange for some free bags for her own family. My business eventually faded because of my regular job and studies but Paquita and I remained friends. I remember her dearly each fall when I prepare a recipe that she taught me.

Granada in Spanish is the word for pomegranate and this fruit is the symbol of the city of Granada. We are surrounded by pomegranate trees here, especially up on the hills of the Alhambra and in the surrounding areas. The symbol is displayed on fountains, ceramic tiles, street signs and of course, the Spanish Coat of Arms. When we think of the history in Granada we are reminded that the pomegranate is also an important Jewish symbol for different reasons. One is that a pomegranate is said to have 613 seeds which coincides with the number of commandments in the Torah. They are also eaten on Rosh Hashanah as a symbol of fruitfulness. The pomegranate reminds me of one of my favorite historical novels that I read about the same time that I met Paquita many years ago. The name is Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali and it tells the story of a family trying to survive after the fall of Granada to the Catholic Monarchs.

I prepared Paquita’s salad the other day along with another dish that I learned how to prepare during that stage in my life. It was a nice meal to represent the history of this beautiful city where I am blessed to live. The salad is prepared with raw escarole, pomegranate seeds, fried garlic cloves, olive oil, vinegar and salt. I served it with a second course of Moroccan Chicken Tagine prepared with preserved lemons, olives and onions garnished with cilantro and spicy malagueta peppers from Portugal.

Seafood at the biggest market in Portugal and at home….

When we drive south from Lisbon on our way to the Costa Vicentina we usually find ourselves in the city of Setúbal at the the mouth of the Sado river and just across from the Troia Peninsula. It also borders the Arraibida Natural Park. Sétubal used to be the center of the canned sardine industry in Portugal and you can visit a museum that is housed in one of the old canning factories. However, there is nothing better than shopping for fresh seafood at the local market. This vibrant space decorated with beautiful tiles and statues is the largest covered market in all of Portugal.

The seafood in the market is beautiful, especially the black scabbardfish. But, you will find all of the ingredients for the local seafood dishes like cuttlefish, clams, cockles, sea snails, and of course sardines. Fresh vegetables, breads, cured sausages and my favorite local cheese called Azeitão are plentiful and sold by local vendors.

A visit to any market in Portugal is not complete without a light snack. Whether you are at one of the large flea markets or a local fresh food market you always have a great choice of Portuguese dishes to choose from. Grilled chicken with a glass of local wine, sautéed liver with onions (iscas con elas), or a sandwich with fried chicken breast. Our go to market snack is always a bifana, a simple sandwich made from marinated pork cutlets served on a fresh roll with condiment options of mustard and hot sauce. With a mini Sagres beer or a glass of local sparkling wine it’s the perfect “pre-lunch” meal. You can easily have a full meal with the dishes that are offered but when in Setúbal it’s best to save room for some fried cuttlefish served with a fresh salad and roasted green peppers in a nearby restaurant.

The last time we were in Setúbal we decided to take the ferry across to the Troia Peninsula. What is now an area for luxury hotels and beautiful beaches used to be home to one of the largest fish salting and preserving workshops during the Roman Empire. These pastes and sauces, like Garum, were produced here and then exported in Amphorae by sea to the different provinces. You can visit the roman ruins here that include the fish salting area, baths and some dwellings dating that were occupied up until the 6th century.

Our van on the ferry
Troia Peninsula which was the Acala Island under the Romans.
explanation of the fish preserving area

Sometimes when we are home for too long we start to miss some of the amazing seafood dishes that we have enjoyed so many times in Portugal. After watching a travel show a couple of weeks ago we decided that it was necessary to replicate one of the dishes that had been prepared on the show. We bought some excellent prawns and clams and made this amazing dish with butter and cilantro. After a seafood meal in Portugal the most common dessert is a “prego”, a grilled beef sandwich with lots of garlic. We couldn’t leave out the dessert! With these blazing hot malagueta peppers it was the perfect meal.

Places in my heart……Burgos

Certain cities will always make me feel like I’m home and Burgos is one of those. Maybe it is because the first time I visited I was a young and tired pilgrim looking for a simple bed and some decent food. The albuergue or pilgrim’s refuge used to be in a park on the outskirts of the city. It was quite rustic but I have fond memories of the communal sleeping area, the outdoor picnic tables and ice cold shower and I had returned with student groups many times to share the experience with them before it closed. There is a scene in the movie “The Way” where they walk up to the gates of this park and I am always rushed with emotion every time I see it. The municipal albuergue is now in a lovely building close to the Cathedral.

Santo Domingo De La Calzada

Burgos is elegance and humility in one. The people are kind yet not exuberant, the pedestrian areas and parks are classy and filled with statues representing the historical and cultural importance that the city holds. The local gastronomy is a mixture of comforting and hearty food with the elegance and detail of modern cuisine. It is a friendly city where one feels comfortable as a visitor or a pilgrim.

The statue of Santo Domingo de la Calzada near the roman bridge in Burgos represents this man known for the construction of bridges, a hospital, roads and a church to help the pilgrims whom he had observed from where he lived as a hermit in the 12th century. There is a town named after him in the same place where he passed away and it continues to be a sacred place for all who walk the French route of the pilgrimage.

The Santa Maria of Burgos Cathedral rises high over the city center. It’s poise and beauty honors hundreds of years of architectural geniuses from its groundbreaking in 1221 up until the 18th century. The main architect of the Cathedral in Granada , Diego de Siloé, was born in Burgos and is responsible for the gilded staircase in the Cathedral of Santa Maria in Burgos. We will also find here the remains of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, otherwise known as El Cid, along with his wife Jimena.

Last summer I was in Burgos with a group of students. I have been working with this school as long as I can remember. It was the Spanish day of sign language and the gate of Santa Maria was reflecting the color for this once the sun went down. One of the students in my group was losing her hearing due to an illness and had been learning sign language. We spent this amazing moment sharing with this lovely group of people from Burgos. They loved being with the students and teaching us new signs. It was one of those moments of gold that you never forget.

I’ve slept many times at a hotel that looks right out onto the Cathedral. The name is Meson del Cid and I loved waking up in the morning atnd having my first view be of this amazing Cathedral. I plan on sleeping there again very soon with a lucky group! It’s amazing how life is a circle.

young me at Meson del Cid, my favorite hotel in Burgos….

Burgos has an amazing gastronomical scene. There are certain things you need to eat when you are visiting such as Morcilla de Burgos (blood sausage with rice), Burgos fresh cheese, river crabs, trout, suckling pig and so much more! All washed down with amazing wine.

An albacore tuna with olives, anchovy and a vinaigrette that I ordered was out of this world. It ranked next to some of the best pintxos I’ve had in the Basque Country. We also had some grilled ribs with potatoes that were humble and flavorful at the same time. Followed by a martini glass layered with egg yolk, pork cheeks and spicy potatoes, we were good to go!

Everything we ate in Burgos this summer was absolutely amazing but one of my favorite memories was from this small bar next to the Cathedral. The tapa came with our wine and we enjoyed it thoroughly along with the great ambience of the bar on a summer evening. Thank you Burgos for reminding me how much I adore being close to you and that I need to bring people there very soon!! I have so many memories here and cannot wait to make more.

Best simple tapa of cured cheese, chorizo and salchichón.

Love in Burgos….

No room for improvement in Evora…..

Roman Temple Évora

The largest city in the Alentejo region of Portugal, Évora, is one of those places that I love to visit in any season. We’ve spent many nights here on our way to the Costa Vicentina in the summer months or on our way to Lisbon during the winter holidays. It’s beauty and charm stands strong regardless of the harsh weather. The 1st Century Roman Temple here never ceases to leave me in awe as I walk up to the Convent dos Lóios where I stay with my groups. Centuries of history always rush through my mind and leave me a bit speechless.

Esporão Winery

Alentejo is known for its wine, excellent food, olive trees, cork and very relaxed way of living. That is just to name a few things. We have probably covered every inch of it throughout our travels in Portugal. Beautiful wineries, small towns with excellent food, and fascinating history is to be found everywhere. Being here during the grape harvest is extra special. At some wineries the grapes are still crushed by foot. The local food varies throughout the Alentejo from hearty meat dishes and soups in the interior to excellent seafood along the coast. One thing you must try while in the area near Évora is the black Iberian pork. These black pigs are raised happily, grazing on acorns from the local oak trees.

There is a restaurant in Évora that I have been wanting to try for an eternity. Tucked away in the old Moorish neighborhood you will find Botequim da Mouraria with seating for 9 people, no reservations accepted. It is owned by a lovely man named Domingos, who runs the front of the house and his wife Florbela, who is the miracle worker in the kitchen. I could only order one item off the menu since I was alone. But, I enviously watched my dining neighbors enjoyed grilled mushrooms, prawns drenched in garlic and butter, ham and melon, and grilled fish. My heart told me to go for the grilled filet of black pork and it was divine. There is no other word to describe this dish. It was served with a green salad tossed in front of me and homemade potato chips. Domingos was slightly annoyed that I didn’t eat the potatoes but the pork and salad were perfect together. If you go, you should really eat their fresh chips!!

I love the set up of the restaurant. Everyone is seated around the “bar” like a family. You can see all the fresh products they have on display along with the gorgeous wine selection. Domingos is kind and honest about how much you should order. It feels like a fine dining experience in an incredibly relaxed atmosphere. By the end of my meal I had taken up pleasant conversation with the Japanese couple to my right and the Irish Thelma and Louise to my left. Everyone was obviously as thrilled as I was to have gotten one of the lucky seats for lunch that day!

When Domingos served my beautiful pork I kindly asked him for some “piri piri” or spicy sauce. One of my favorite things about good Portuguese restaurants. He brought out this jar of fiery oil made with the spicy malagueta peppers used in Portugal, Brazil and Africa. Within 2 minutes the jar was being passed about the bar to the other guests. There is nothing like a piri piri made with love.

Domingos forced me to have dessert since I did not eat my potatoes. There are moments in life when you just can’t say no, like with my Nana Lena. She would have been appalled if we said no to any homemade dessert of hers! Siricaia is an egg custard traditionally served with candied plums that come from the beautiful town of Elvas right on the Spanish/Portuguese border. The perfect end to a perfect meal!

Historically refreshing……

Gorgeous tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers are always sold where I go for a walk near my house. Fresh from the local gardens along the Genil river you can purchase fresh vegetables daily. Gazpacho is the best summer treat, served cold in a glass with ice. In Granada you get a free tapa with that cold glass of gazpacho in any bar. But, we are not limited to the classic tomato gazpacho. The other day in one of my favorite tapas bars in Antequera I ordered a Sephardic Gazpacho or “tarator”. Tarator is originally a thick cream prepared with yogurt, walnuts and cucumber. Similar to a tzatziki. Here the yogurt is substituted with kefir and it is served in a cup and thus turned into a Sephardic Gazpacho. Perfectly refreshing and filled with flavor it was one of the best tapas I have ordered in a long time.

FAVA BEAN AJOBLANCO WITH PRICKLY PEAR FRUIT

One of my very favorite dishes from Andalucia is Ajoblanco. It is originally made from mashed almonds, garlic, olive oil and bread, garnished with white grapes. The dish dates back to the Romans when the Iberian Peninsula was known as Hispania. At the restaurant and tapas bar Arte Cozina in Antequera the chef celebrates the origins of the local dishes. They offer an Ajoblanco made from dried fava beans which a perfect example of the history here. Instead of the white grapes they garnished it with a frozen slice of prickly pear fruit. In the summer months in Southern Spain you can purchase the peeled prickly pear fruit from street vendors so it was a perfect seasonal garnish to this amazing ajoblanco.

My homemade fava beans

Fava beans have been cultivated on the Iberian Peninsula since medieval times. They are consumed fresh and raw during our May festivities in Granada, or boiled and sauteed with ham and oilive oil, dried whole , or turned into a flour. We had them recently in the Alpujarras prepared whole with an almond sauce and in Portugal they can be served to accompany fish or stewed with meat. One of my favorite recipes is from Morocco, Bessarra, which you can eat at roadside stands through the country. Made from dried fava beans into a puree and seasoned with lemon, garlic, chili pepper and cumin it is a perfect treat for weary travelers. Recently I prepared fava beans my favorite way with sauteed onions, chili peppers, bay leaf, fresh mint leaves and our best olive oil.

Changing colors….

“Mom, it is so green!” These are the words from my daughter’s mouth every time we land in Boston, Chicago, New Jersey. She walks on the grass everywhere we go, sidewalks no longer exist for her. Grass, green and lush under her feet. She relishes this feeling along with every single rainstorm, walking happily as the drops wet her face and arms.

I remembered her words clearly as we drove through the arid plains of Castille a few weeks ago. On our way to the Basque Country from Madrid we took a couple of stops along the way. Our first was just for lunch in the town of Turégano on a crossroad between Segovia and Sepúlveda. On a hot afternoon in August the town is quiet to say the least. But, like many towns that I have visited in this area it’s grand castle towers over the main square and we are reminded of the centuries of history that this now quiet town has witnessed. Fernando the Catholic stayed here on his way to marry Isabel in Segovia in 1474.

Romanesque Church of Santiago

Next to the church of Santiago we found a nice posada where we had lunch. Throughout history posadas have been a place for weary travelers and their horses to rest and eat. We arrived a bit late for Spanish lunch time but were treated graciously and fed well, as it should be at a decent posada. I have a weakness for “judiones” whenever I am in this area. Tender white beans stewed with different pieces of pork. At home I prepare them vegetarian but when in Turégano……

Judiones de la Granja

The traditional festivities of Turégano begin today. I spend a lot of time explaining the “encierro” or “running of the bulls” when I’m working in Pamplona. I remind my travelers that it is important to know that we have encierros throughout Spain and Turégano is a perfect example. The statue on the way out of town reminds us of this. The festivities here include three days running wth the bulls along with their other celebrations.

We always prefer the road less traveled and so we find ourselves on the national highways and passing through these beautiful towns wherever we might be. The colors change drastically from one place to another but it is easy to find the beauty and history along the way.

August in Castilla y León
Santiago