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.

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.

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”.

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.

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….

Sagrada Familia…just for us! A very long day that I thought would end with the best tortilla española ever!!

Many times people have asked me, “don’t you get tired of seeing the same places over and over again?” My answer is always the same. Never. First of all, the places I visit are absolutely gorgeous and I always see and learn something new. Second, I am constantly seeing it through other people’s eyes. New questions, different ways of perceiving something or some place. I continuously read and study and appreciate even more the places I visit.

blocked entrance to the Sagrada Familia

So, last week when we were locked in the Sagrada Familia temple in Barcelona due to a peaceful protest outside mixed with a general strike and the protests about the Catalan political situation I thought to myself, could there be a better placed to be trapped for a couple hours? While some tourists were having panic and anxiety attacks at the sight of closed doors, my group sat peacefully in the pews observing and taking in all the details they could of this masterpiece. They enjoyed the intermittent organ music and rationed out very small mints that one of my guests had in her purse, laughing a bit and making the best of this extremely unusual situation.

We were set free eventually and actually waited peacefully in our pews while the other tourists gathered madly at the exits. Thanks to three small miracles we made it back to our hotel before all streets were blocked off and walked to lunch. My hunger had vanished similar to the day before and it wasn’t until later in the evening after watching the protests from our rooftop terrace that I was finally ready to eat something!

High class Tortilla Española. Spanish potato Omelette.

On the corner by our hotel is one of my very favorite restaurants in Barcelona, Ciudad Condal. They have an amazing selection of great tapas and shellfish and I think they have the best individual tortilla española (Spanish Potato Omelette) I have ever eaten. For breakfast the plain tortilla with onions, served with tomato bread and a cafe con leche is a perfect way to start the day. But, the tortilla I had the other night was beyond perfection. Black truffle, onion and ham. Accompanied by a glass of local red wine, I was finally a bit relaxed and able to enjoy some great food. The blinds were halfway shut since the general protest caused most businesses to completely close down and I was surrounded by people who had been “marching” to Barcelona from other cities to protest the sentence of the Catalan political prisoners. I was just so happy to have that lovely tortilla. I almost ordered another glass of wine but I’m happy I did not because not long after I returned to my hotel things got a big uglier on our street. I’ll stick with the memory of that fantastic tortilla. Thanks Ciudad Condal for being open and so close to home!

gothic quarter
protests……..

Dedicated to my most amazing Smithsonian group. I’ll never forget you!

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