During and after the holidays is a time for me to regroup a bit and enjoy some down time before the tourist season begins. The weather has been unusually beautiful even for Andalucia. We always take advantage of the warm sun to explore some of the small towns and nature that we have a stone´s throw from Granada. We can hike or bike to Pinos Genil which is a beautiful small town on the river known for its outdoor terraces where you can enjoy lunch or just a small tapa. The “huevos rotos” are especially good at La Taberna de Guillermo. Sauteed potatoes with excellent Serrano ham and fresh eggs. The eggs are served fried and whole on top and you cut everything up with a knife and fork hence the name, Broken Eggs. Here they let us use their homemade hot peppers to put on top which makes us extremely happy.
Since my daughter Luna “adopted” my bike a couple of years ago I have not had my own until this Christmas. Thank you Santa. To celebrate we biked to Fuente Vaqueros, the birth town of Federico García Lorca, a prominent poet and playwright who was assassinated by the Nationalist troops in the Spanish Civil War. From the path along the Genil River you have a perfect view of the snow covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada. In the afternoon we stopped to talk with a shepherd who was out walking with his 180 goats. He was a happy man who mentioned that the day would be perfect if he could spend it sitting on an outdoor cafe drinking beers with his wife.
One of the most pintoresque drives in Andalucia takes you from the city of Granada down to the Mediterranean Coast passing through the mountains and the Tropical Valley. It is called the Carretera de la Cabra, or the “Goat Road” in English. There is a beautiful hike down to the Rio Verde and a few small white towns that are yet to be discovered by the masses. We usually stop in a couple of those along the way to the coast. In the town of Otívar we have a glass of one of my favorite wines which is quite strong. It is called vino de la tierra, wine of the land. Here it is pink and harsh. A dear friend from another town close by laughingly commented, “be careful or you will end up asleep in the valley.” That same friend directed us to a bar in Otivar to taste their award winning tapa, grilled eggplant with goat cheese.
“UNDERSTAND ONE SINGLE DAY FULLY , SO YOU CAN LOVE EVERY NIGHT”
Every morning we leave our house and as we cross over the river I look up to the right and enjoy the view of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. I love this view year round, with and without snow topped peaks. For me it is one of the reasons that makes Granada very special. In about 25 minutes you can be up at the ski resort Sol y Nieve to enjoy the snow that we usually don’t have here in the city. And in 40 minutes you can drive south and be on the beach. For me, this is an ideal place to live.
Last year on the Day of Andalucia (the day to celebrate Andalucia becoming an autonomous community) we woke up to snow in the city. It was like a gift for children and adults. No school and snow falling from the sky. We spent the morning throwing snowballs with our neighbors and building snowmen. We had to enjoy it fully because we don’t know the next time this will happen!
One of the most important things I have learned is to appreciate the smaller moments in life. To be present and relish the time we share with others and also alone. In Spain we have a saying that expresses this perfectly. “La vida son cuatro dias.” Life is only four days long.” Enjoy, and don’t let life pass you by without experiencing it to the fullest. In Spain much of this theory revolves around sharing food and drink. We can always find time to enjoy just a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I have many favorite places where I do this in Granada and in the cities that I pass through frequently.
There is a beverage and a small bit of something delicious to fit any moment or feeling. A chilled glass of dry sherry served with olives and cheese filled peppers served by a gentleman in a white jacket and bowtie is a nice way to share a conversation with a friend an early evening in Barcelona. Or a bit of hard cider before lunch while peacefully looking out at the Bay of Biscay. And in Sevilla, I love to have a glass of sweet sherry accompanied by a bit of fresh cheese with quince paste and rosemary as I kick back and listen to the lively atmosphere around me. These are just some of the moments that I have treasured along this beautiful road we call life.
Everyone who has visited Madrid has seen, photographed or met up with friends at the famous Bear and Madroño Statue. A cute little bear trying with his paw to grab a bit of this unusual and fairly unknown fruit. This symbol, along with the seven stars that have been known to represent either the Ursa Major Constellation or seven castles that used to surround Madrid, make up the Coat of Arms of this capital city. There are many different versions about why the bear and tree also became part of the Coat of Arms. Some say it is the symbol of possession and power. My favorite interpretation so far was one that my sister Denise was given late one night in a bar in Madrid. Something about bears molesting trees. Anyhow, I would imagine that for most visitors this statue in the Puerta del Sol is their first and last contact with a Madroño Tree. But, they can be found all over the country.
The other day we went for a walk with friends near the Alhambra. We eventually found ourselves wandering through the Carmen de los Martires. “Carmenes” in Granada are typical homes with beautiful garden areas. Sometimes Granada is referred to as The City of Carmenes. This particular Carmen is very large and open to the public at certain hours during the day. There are beautiful views of the city, extravagant gardens and even peacocks. It is the perfect place to enjoy peace and quiet or read a book. With three kids in tow we had less peace and quiet but we did enjoy the views and had fun tasting the funny fruit off the Madroño trees. I heard once that if you eat too much of this fruit it can actually intoxicate you. We didn’t have time for that but it was fun to taste.
Is there anything better than the smell of a wine cellar? For me, there are few smells that are equal to that complexity. A sweet yet profound passion that slowly intoxicates your soul. Usually the first thing I do when I step into a wine cellar is close my eyes and slowly inhale. It is an aromatic reminder that something beautiful is about to happen.
Recently we enjoyed a visit to a beautiful Wine Hotel just outside of Salamanca. The enchanting Hacienda Zorita is home to a unique winery, hotel and spa. It was, in the 14th Century, a Dominican Monastery and you can still visit the chapel “San Nicolás de las Viñas” which is home to some of the best wine in the country along with a collection of religious artwork from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Jaime, one of the founding partners of the Hacienda took us on a guided tour of the winery and then hosted one of the finest wine, olive oil and cheese tastings that I have ever experienced.
After the wine tasting we were treated to a relaxing and informal dinner in the River Cafe. Since my truly angelic daughter had sat through the very long tasting while quietly nibbling on pieces of apple and delicious bread dipped in golden organic olive oil, it was the perfect meal for us. A simple cheese plate and delicious arugula salad were her personal favorites of the evening.
The grounds of the hotel were so beautiful that regardless of the subzero temperatures we took full advantage of the walking trails and the beautiful sound of the River Tormes. I look forward to my next visit to Zorita.
It has been raining for the past four days and we have been enjoying the fireplace, playtime and a great variety of home cooked food. Finally, there was a break in the clouds and we decided to go for a stroll up the river. Walking about 2 1/2 miles along the river from our house we have a couple of great restaurants. Today we chose one called La Huerta del Fraile, The Friar’s Garden. Across the street from the restaurant there is a huge pumpkin patch along with many vegetable gardens and orchards. The rain started up again as soon as we walked in, so we tucked in next to their fireplace. We had planned on having one tapita and then moving on but we were so relaxed and the first tapa was delicious and unique. So we stayed for a bit.
The first tapa was a surprisingly scrumptious version of one dish in Spain that I have always disliked. It is called San Jacobo (Saint Jacob). Usually it is a slice of chicken wrapped around ham and cheese then breaded and fried. Basically, the Spanish version of Cordon Bleu. Most of the Saint Jacobs that I have met have been in low cost hotel buffets where basically everything is disgusting. Needless to say, I had never once enjoyed a San Jacobo in all of my years in Spain until La Huerta del Fraile’s version. It was made with cheddar cheese, eggplant, mushrooms and ham and then covered in a crunchy coating. Tapa number two was also the best version I’ve ever had of a very typical dish, Migas. Literally, migas de pan are the soft breadcrumbs from fresh bread. The preparation of the dish known as Migas can vary depending on the region of Spain that you are in. In Granada they are the breadcrumbs or leftover bread sauteed in olive oil with garlic, green peppers and a variety of pork products. On the coast they are also served with sardines (see toes in the sand, shrimp in my hand). These definitely ranked the best that I have had. Usually Migas are prepared on an open fire out in the country. A typical dish prepared for hard workers.
Off the regular menu we ordered a salad with tomato and goat cheese and a plate of fried berenjenas (aubergine or eggplant) with sugar cane honey. Fried eggplant deserves a post all to itself. My 5 year old daughter wants to dedicate an entire blog to this favorite dish of hers. They are typical in Cordoba but here in Granada we have also found some amazing ones. For me they are a mixture of dessert and pancakes. A light fluffy batter, eggplants, and sweet dark honey. Another fried delicacy here in Spain.
Ten years ago my sister Georgianna came to live with me for four months. We had many wonderful moments that included sleeping on the beach, dancing on top of bars and enjoying lots of wonderful food. We also took dance classes and did tai chi and yoga together. But every once in a while my sister would wander off for a walk and adventures on her own. My sister is one of those people who will talk to anyone and would always come home with wonderful stories to tell. One day she came back from a walk along the river with a bag full of quince. A big bag. She had met an older man along the river who invited her to look at his beautiful orchard and vegetable garden. We had no idea what to do with the quince but we did go back and visit him several times. He would offer us homemade wine with slices of ham as he told us his life story. Pepe I believe his name was. Pepe from the river we called him.
Since the school year began a couple of friends and I have been walking along the river every morning before I go home to do my yoga practice. Yesterday as we admired the first snowfall on the Sierra Nevada, we were stopped by “Rafa”. Rafa wanted to know if we were tired and proceeded to give us handfuls of a small little black fruit called Almencinas. He told us to peel off the outer skin, eat the “meat” and spit out the rest. He said the fruit was sweet and would give us energy. So as we continued on with our walk we did as instructed. The miniscule amount of fruit that each tiny ball offered was sweet but I’m not sure how much extra energy it gave us. On our way back towards Granada we ran into Rafa again. He told us more about his life, how he used to play professional soccer and how much he enjoys the outdoors and the mountains. This morning as well we saw Rafa’s smiling face and he handed us more Almencinas to add to our piles. We asked him about the difference between Endrinas (sloe berries) and the Almencinas. He explained that the Almencinas are the fruit from a tree, the Almez and Endrinas are a berry. Endrinas are used to make Pacharán, which is for me one of the most delicious liqueurs ever made. It is originally from Navarra in Northeastern Spain. However, Rafa explained to us that the best Pacharán is made here in Granada in a mountain town called Monachíl. He told us the name, Espino Negro, and that we definitely needed a bottle to help celebrate Christmas. I think I will follow Rafa’s suggestion this year.
I was up late last night after taking a wonderful client up to the caves for Flamenco. So when the alarm went off this morning I was happy to see that the rest of my family was still asleep and I rolled over hoping for a nice lie in. It didn’t last long of course. Before I realized it I was up making breakfast with the company of my neighbor’s two year old and then quickly we were all off to school.
Amazingly, a friend and I both found the energy to grab our bikes for a short ride and went to a beautiful town, Pinos de Genil, on the way to the mountains. After drinking fresh cold water out of the town’s fountain we decided to have a quick beer at Bar Ricardo next to the river. The moment improved when our server brought us a plate of delicious olives that had been seasoned with cumin and paprika and a bit of salchichón (salami). I had one of my “I heart Granada” moments listening to the sound of the river and recalling my Gypsy bliss from the night before. To prolong the feeling we decided to pick Luna up from school early and take her to another beautiful town up in the mountains for lunch and a hike.
Guejar Sierra is a cozy mountain town about 10 miles from Granada. It has great restaurants both within the town and along the river that serve traditional food with an abundance of olive oil and local products. It has also been a favorite place of mine to go and enjoy the many hiking trails that take you along the river and into the mountains. There used to be a tram that went from the center of Granada to the start of one of the main trails, La Vereda de la Estrella. In the early 70’s the tram ceased to function due to lack of profit. The older people in the town are still quite disturbed about this, understandably so.
We stopped in one of the restaurants along the river to eat something before our hike. We ordered the obligatory and delicious local potato dish, poor man’s potatoes. Patatas a lo pobre. They are thinly sliced potatoes, green peppers and sometimes onions sauteed in an generous amount of olive oil. Simple and always gratifying. Luna had a hankering for chicken so we ordered a small dish of chicken in garlic (and plenty of oil) which was delicious with just a bit of white wine and about 10 cloves of crispy garlic. But the star dish today was the Padrón peppers. These peppers are named after a town in Galicia and were originally brought to Spain in the 16th century from Mexico. The ones we had today were grown locally. There is a saying about these peppers, “Pimientos de Padrón, algunos pican algunos no”. “Padrón peppers, some are hot, some are not”. They are served after being fried in olive oil and lightly salted. My friend took a bite out of the first pepper and handed it to me immediately. Usually these peppers leave me craving spice. If you are lucky, one in 15 is hot. Not today. They were all fire. And I mean FUEGO!!! I’m a spicy food addict and these were mind blowing. All of them.
After our hike along the river we stopped in a local shop and bought some local treats. Onions, tomatoes, apples, pumpkin, cherries in strong alcohol, and pickled spicy peppers. The pickled peppers aren’t from Padrón but they are just about as picante!!
El Camino de Santiago or The Path of St.James is something that I hold dear to my heart. The pilgrimage to Santiago de Campostela has many different routes that begin in various places throughout Spain and the rest of Europe. I’ve walked it twice, two different routes, at two very different moments in my life. For me, the Camino is filled with fear and denial overpowered by magic and love. At the moments when you aren’t looking for it, you will always find a sign that points you in the right direction or gives you that last bit of energy needed to move forward. On my last Camino across Northern Spain we had “un día de estos” or “one of those days”, exhausting and eternal. It seemed like we would never arrive at our destination that day.
When we did make it across a very long and slightly creepy dam, we found a “town” with a closed down hotel that only brought one image to my mind……. the film Psycho!!! My first thought was, ” let’s get the heck out of here”. After hightailing it 3 more miles up a very dark and windy road we finally got to our new destination, Grandas de Salime. We were greeted with a warm wonderful meal and a place to rest. Although I had many flashes of horror films as we hiked those last 3 miles, I knew that we would be okay. Earlier on that day I had found the most amazing design that someone had left on the earth. The Camino brings it all to the surface.