It is inevitable that at one point during every tour someone will ask the question, “What is your favorite city in Spain?”. This is almost impossible for me to answer. Certain cities become a favorite because of their magic and beauty. Others become a favorite because of memories and moments. And some embrace both for me. Although my list is ever changing, there are always a few that rank at the top. I never include Granada because it is a constant in my life, an ongoing affair of love and life.
Toledo caught my heart from day one not due to its beauty and history, but because it proposed a great challenge to me. The incredible ease at which one could get lost within its streets. And lost, I have been. Luckily I have been blessed to have spent many nights in Toledo and now it is a rarity that I get lost in its labyrinth of small passageways and dead ends. For me, Toledo is an outdoor museum. Sometimes I close my eyes as I wander about and I can feel the history that has passed through it’s cobblestone streets. Last March after being under the city to visit the old Arabic baths we climbed up to the top of one of the main gates of Toledo, La Puerta de Bisagra. The city was bathed in the light of the full “super” moon. The immense beauty caused our group of 30 thirteen year olds to fall silent. Something quite difficult to achieve.
Apart from the city itself, friendship has also tied me to Toledo throughout the past 15 years. My friend Mario is one of the people in Spain who has taught me how to really enjoy the moment. No matter where we meet up to have a beer or eat lunch he always has one of those flashes where he looks up, nodding his head and says, “has visto que bonito es?”. Can you see just how beautiful it is? Not only has he shown me some of the most wonderful views, restaurants and bars in the city but he also reminds me continually about how to savor every second of life. In 2011 I spent the night in Toledo with 4 different groups and all of them coincided with a full moon. I realize this is just coincidental but it adds to the magic. In June I watched the entire lunar eclipse from a beautiful lookout point over the city. Accompanied by a friend and a gin tonic garnished with black pepper. As I fell asleep that night my life felt like a bit of a dream.
Luna and I walked home the other night……at sunset. Sometimes I have moments of bliss in this city. My Granada……the part of it that has always been a part of me, and always will be. There are places that I walk by everyday that are as familiar as my own breathe. Graffiti, the smell of jasmine and the old gentleman sitting on the bench.
Sometimes the beauty of the Sierra Nevada silences me. I forget it is there. Then, I look up as it is whispering Good Night. With the last traces of snow, its magic casts a shadow over the city.
Granada is small enough that while I’m sitting having a coffee, a friend suddenly shows up on her bike unexpectedly. People recognize me wherever I go, whether we met yesterday or years ago. But, you can also hide in its cracks and crevices. Under a tree in the Alhambra, in a hidden cafe or bar, or sitting on a rock near the river.
I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth. One of them.
Autumn entered with grace here in Granada as a nice cool rain cleansed the city on Friday afternoon. My daughter ran to put on the warmest clothes she could find along with her rain boots and we happily splashed and walked along the river. Fall in Granada tends to be a short period of time so we try to enjoy every bit of it. The blazing sun still shows its face each day, but the evenings and mornings are quite crisp and cold. Many people in the city vacation until mid-September so this is the first week that Granada feels back to full swing after the long summer. This last weekend in September is one of the biggest local celebrations in Granada. The day of the Virgin of Anguish, the patron Saint of Granada. La Virgin de las Angustias. The procession for the Virgin is held on Sunday evening (now) and the city is completely inundated by “Granainos” who come from all over the city and surrounding towns to honor the Virgin. Fifteen minutes of fireworks announced the beginning of the procession at the Basilica this evening.
The celebration of the Patron Saint is accompanied by the festival of fall fruits in the main plaza of the city.
For me the smell of the plaza brings back memories of being in an apple orchard when I was young. However, you won’t find a single apple in the plaza today. At the different posts you can find quince, beautiful yellow and black fresh dates, acerolas, and chirimoyas (custard apples). You can also taste an “azufaifa”, the fruit from a jujube tree. This reddish fruit is similar to a bitter, dry apple. Interesting. The flavors of autumn. On the other side of the plaza from the fruit stands are different associations selling various pastries and the famous “Torta de la Virgin” or Virgin’s Cake. This sweet bread made with olive oil can be found plain or filled with chocolate, cream or a unique filling made from squash. Thousands of virgin cakes are consumed by the people of Granada today.
Today we wandered back home early enough to avoid the crowds for the procession. But, we enjoyed the day in our own way by observing the Basilica and the vendors selling rosaries and long white candles. Tradition, culture and the smell of fruit filled the streets today.
Some of my favorite tapas are on the coast of Granada. Since it is still around 90 degrees everyday here, I have the beach on my mind constantly. In any of the beach restaurants or “chiringuitos” you can sit down at a table with your feet in the sand, order a beer (or whatever it is you desire), and enjoy a wonderful tapa. Fresh fish and seafood are the norm here. I love when I am surprised with a small plate of grilled shrimp or fried, marinated dogfish.
I remember my first couple years in Granada when we would take the bus down to the beach for the day. There was something liberating about enjoying a cold drink with a free tapa of fried squid and then jumping into the Mediterranean sea merely 5 feet away. My excitement about this has not faded a bit in the past 16 years. Swim, tapa, swim, sun, tapa, swim, tapa, sun, swim…………ahhhhhhhhh!!
During the summer months the “chiringuitos” set up an open fire to grill the fresh sardines. We call them “sardinas al espeto”, sardines on a skewer. For most of my life I thought I hated sardines (?). Little did I know about the delicate flavor of these healthy fish. I prefer the smaller sardines to the larger ones. The larger ones tend to be oilier and have a stronger flavor. A favorite tapa here is “migas” or sauteed breadcrumbs and garlic, topped with grilled sardines. Sometimes a bit of melon is thrown in. Delicious!
Tapas are a way of life in Spain. Small, simple dishes of food that vary depending on the region and the restaurant. The word tapa simply means “cover” or “lid” since originally a slice of cheese or ham was placed over a glass of wine. Whether this was done either to keep the flies out or simply because someone decided it is preferable to have some sustenance along with your beverage of choice, the outcome shaped an important part of this culture. This is my first of many posts dedicated to the “tapa”.
Where I live in Granada tapas are free. Not just in the city, but in the entire province (county). There are many places throughout the country where you will be given a bite of something when you order a drink, be it olives or a small dish of paella. But in Granada, the tapa enters into a whole different dimension. During “tapa time” which happens between 1 p.m and 3:30p.m. and then again from 8p.m. to 11 p.m. more or less, you are given a free tapa with each drink you order. In many bars you are simply given a different tapa with each drink where in others you are given a list of tapas to choose from. The assortment varies from bar to bar and can include anything from fried fish, meatballs, cured ham or a Spanish omelet to fried eggs with potatoes, snails in a spicy sauce or a small baguette with pork tenderloin and tomato. The list is endless.
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.
My favorite time to be on the beach is at the end of the day when the sun has just barely set in the distance. I love the sluggish manner that the families pack up to go home almost with regret or “sin ganas”, without desire. The end of summer, the shortening of days. After surviving some of the hottest days of the year, we were met yesterday by clouds on the beach. Last night the air smelled of cool rain followed by a nice morning breeze. It was cleansing, but if it were up to me I would extend summer just one month more. I tend to spend the hottest of the Spanish summer working and then as soon as possible we go straight north to enjoy a bit of cooler air. Avoiding the Southern beaches in the summer has become a habit. Too many people, too expensive, too many umbrellas on the beach, and difficult to find an empty bit of sand on any beach. However, in early fall all of this disappears and the beaches are left wide open to enjoy. The water has a perfect temperature and the sun still warms enough of your body to enjoy the full day.
The coast of Granada tends to be filled with local people. The beaches have pebbles instead of sand which at times can be a bit agonizing for the feet but I prefer to look at it as reflexology. The service in restaurants tend to be typical “estilo granadino” with a bit of grouchiness thrown in with your fried fish. But for me, it is simply home. Once you cringe over the pebbly entrance, the water is cool, deep and so salty that there isn’t a need to move a limb to float. I can swim for hours. Over the years I have fallen in love with many secret coves in Granada. Even on a day where we have little time to go hiking and driving about, in 35 minutes we can be on a beautiful, relaxing beach. The food comes next…………
My oldest sister Denise always says that my daughter should be a spokesperson for Asturias, as it is her favorite province in Northern Spain. We have been vacationing up north since she was a very small baby and it is something she looks forward to all year long. She will ramble on about the green landscape, the beautiful beaches, the wonderful food, and of course the healthy cows that produce her favorite milk and ice-cream. We try to spend most of our time in campgrounds while visiting the north of Spain because we love the people and the freedom that Luna has to run around. Spending the days swimming and hiking from cove to cove is one of our favorite past times. One of the most picturesque towns is Luanco, just west of Gijón. We spent one night in the town a few years ago at a beautiful hotel right on the sea where they served us breakfast as we watched the fish swim.
We always go back to Luanco for a few reasons. One, is the delicious ice-cream we have found there, my favorite being rice pudding, which is the richest most delicious bit of cream I have ever tasted. Luna always tastes a different flavor, trying to never repeat. The other reason for visiting Luanco is the wonderful family beach in the town. But, on our last trip Luna found her best excuse for visiting Luanco. Milk from Asturian cows sold in a vending machine!!! For one euro she proudly carried her liter of fresh cow milk back to the campground. Amazing. Milk from a vending machine that tasted like actual milk and even had a layer of cream on top. Does life get better than this when you are 5, or 39??????
Deep fried food. Before moving to Spain this was something I ate occasionally in a bar or to cure a hangover. In Spain however, fried food disguises itself in a way that almost makes it seem healthy. And, according to many a Spaniard, if it is prepared correctly it is healthy indeed. You may try to avoid it, try to minimize, but it is always there and always delicious. Even after 17 years I still haven’t taken up the tradition of deep frying in my own home. I prefer to leave the dirty work to someone else and enjoy my “fritanga” sitting on a beach or a pleasant terrace. The smell of my neighbor’s fried fish wafting into my open windows three times a week is as close as I need to be.
Two years ago we discovered a great campground in a national park on the Northern coast of Spain in the region of Cantabria. From the campground you can walk down to an extensive beach, Oyambre, that allows amazing views of the “Picos de Europa”, a spectacular mountain range. Last year we discovered a great little restaurant still open in the off season where we enjoyed a menu of the day that included a pinto bean stew and an excellent tuna with onions or atún encebollado, typical along this coast. When we returned this year in August, the main beach restaurant or “chiringuito” as we would call it here was open. El Pájaro Amarillo as it is called has beautiful views of the beach from its extensive terrace. We were looking to eat something “light” on our first afternoon at the beach. Since my daughter is a huge fan of fried calamares we decided to order “rabas” . They are basically deep fried squid cut to be straight instead of rings. We also ordered a “ración” of patatas bravas ( fried potatoes in a spicy sauce). The fried squid in Cantabria is one of the most tender and delicious that I have had in the country (and my daughter eats it everywhere possible). But, the patatas bravas were unbelievable. This is a typical tapa served all over the country in many different ways. Like my daughter with fired squid, I try to taste all varieties of patatas bravas throughout the country. What usually varies the most is the sauce. These were actually patatas mixtas which includes both the spicy tomato sauce and an alioli or garlic mayonnaise. Both of the sauces were so delicious that we dipped both the potatoes and the squid into the sauce. YUM!!! The alioli held enough garlic to ward off the flu for 5 years and the brava sauce was actually SPICY!!! Something very unusual in Spain. We returned the next day and ordered the exact same simple meal without one regret. The beach is beautiful and the mixture of sand, sun and fried yumminess makes it all the more worth the visit!!!