November 22, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Spain, Travel, Travels in Spain

You’ve gotten the memo by now – Spain has lots of delicious food, but a healthy chunk of it involves meat. This wouldn’t be such a big deal except that you’re a vegetarian, which kind of makes the idea of really enjoying the country, much less not starving to death, kind of seem impossible. Lovely. Just what you’ve always wanted in a vacation – lots of good wine and a totally empty stomach.

Fear not, my friend. A couple of weeks ago I had my first vegetarian visitor (eh hem, challenge). Most of my guests have been more or less like me when I arrived here – not terribly carnivorous, but willing to try a bite of just about anything. (Years later and I cannot live without my beloved jamón, but you already knew that.) So with the arrival of this new cuisine-restricted friend, I was enthusiastic to show her that a vegetarian can not only avoid starvation while traveling in Spain, but can actually come to appreciate its cuisine. Challenge accepted.

Our journey through Spain took us to Ávila, Toledo and down south to Sevilla, Carmona and Granada. Our first stop in Ávila required a visit to one of our favorite restaurants, El Molino de La Losa, where we noshed on their giant tortilla española (made with some 24 eggs), which was as spectacular in taste as it was in size. This basic Spanish dish (usually made with a humble six or so eggs) is often a vegetarian go-to, but can’t really be fully appreciated unless it’s done right – that is, homemade and slightly moist in the center (nothing is worse than a dry, hard tortilla – I’m an expert, I know this). Accompanying our tortilla, we sampled a variety of Spanish cheeses along with membrillo, which is a sweet jelly-like substance that is orgasmic when served with a little bread and queso manchego (strict vegetarians should note that, as with many cheeses, animal product may be used in the making of manchego cheese). I should mention that the texturas de chocolate dessert also happened to be vegetarian as well (crazy, right!?), so of course we had to try that too.

Down in Sevilla, we made like natives and ordered gazpacho and salmorejo like they were going out of style. Salmorejo is similar to gazpacho, but thicker and typically served with hard boiled egg and pieces of jamón on top (so be sure to ask for salmorejo “sin jamón” if you are a vegetarian). Accompanying our many meals were setas a la plancha (grilled mushrooms) and that fabulous ratatouille-like dish, pisto manchego (you learned how to make that a few weeks back, remember?). And to start our days, we fueled ourselves with classic Spanish breakfasts such as pan con tomate (toast with olive oil and crushed tomato) and churros con chocolate. Doesn’t sound half bad, does it? Well, it wasn’t.

On the way to Granada, we stopped in Carmona, a pueblo famous for having one of the longest histories in the region and also, as fate would have it, for its dish of espinacas con garbanzos (spinach and garbanzos). It was so awesomely delicious that we ordered two plates of it and even tackled a couple more bowls of gazpacho for good measure.

Heading east we ended up in Granada where we dined at the always-a-crowd-pleaser El Huerto de Juan Ranas. There we had an epic dinner, taking in the view of the Alhambra and chowing down on vegetable couscous (a common dish in Southern Spain). Perfectly cooked carrots, zucchini, squash, onion and even raisins danced in our mouths along with the pearly bits of couscous. Seriously, if this is what being a vegetarian in Spain looks like, then sign me up!!

Returning to Madrid, our tummies were oh so happy, not to mention oh so meat-free. Being a vegetarian in this country may draw lots of weird looks (like “you poor thing” kinds of looks), but otherwise is entirely doable, if not utterly enjoyable! Just note down some of these delicious vegetarian dishes and arm yourself with two short phrases: “lleva carne?” (does it have meat?) and “sin carne, por favor” (without meat, please).

Here is a list of some other commonly found vegetarian-ish dishes in Spain:

    Patatas bravas (potatoes with salsa – and no, it’s not Mexican-style salsa!)
    Paella de marisco/verduras (seafood/vegetables)
    Croquetas de setas/gambas/bacalao (mushrooms/shrimp/cod croquettes)
    Empanadas de atún/bacalao (tuna/cod)
    Gambas al ajillo (shrimp served with garlic in olive oil)
    Verduras a la plancha (grilled vegetables)

*La Tortuga Viajera has finally gotten on the Twitter bandwagon. I’m still not entirely convinced, so come follow me to see if I end up getting on board with the whole thing. I make a persuasive argument, don’t I?

November 17, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Traditions

Growing up we all had our version of normal and I’m pretty sure we thought the world worked just the same way that we did. Everything was just fine and dandy until we traveled abroad and suddenly realized that normal looks completely different somewhere else – maybe the cars drive on the opposite side of the street, or perhaps dinner isn’t served at 7:00pm but instead at 10:00pm. In many cases, these differences might be somewhat expected, but every once and awhile we’ve surely come across something that has just made us go “what the…??” I had a moment like this in Vietnam when at first the I-carry-my-world-on-my-motorbike concept seemed ridiculous, but then, upon closer consideration, it indeed made sense. With that in mind, it made me think – don’t we all have cultural quirks that make others do a double take? Since I surely can’t travel the world to discover all of these idiosyncrasies on my own, I thought who better to pose such a curiosity than to the Lonely Planet BlogSherpas? So, that’s what I did and here’s what they had to say:

“I admit, we, Filipinos, love to sing,” admits Claire over at First Time Travel. But she’s not just talking about in the shower and along with the radio in the car. According to Claire, “do not be surprised to find karaoke and videoke machines along the seaside or by the narrow streets in a remote town.” Before you become too charmed by the Filipinos’ passion for belting out their favorite tunes, you best read more about their hospitality, or else you should expect to be singing right along with them.

Do you remember your thermos? I do. Do you remember the last time that you used it? Probably not. This apparently long forgotten product seems to, however, have been given new life in Peru according to Jason of AlpacaSuitcase. Jason, who now looks at the “lowly termo (thermos) in exalted light,” tells how the undrinkable water in the country has resulted in a thermos resurrection of sorts that will have you singing its praises all the live long day. Read more about why you should consider starting a new love affair with your thermos.

Amy over at The Q Family Adventures Travel Blog brings new meaning to the family road-trip. Gone are the days of traveling across your country and stopping on the side of the roadway for some fresh-from-the-farm fruit while the kiddies romp around in the back seat. Oh no, not when you’re road-tripping it through Thailand!! While driving through the country, Amy recalls,“From a far, we saw several bags hung from the pole. As we got closer we noticed that those bags held something that moved.” It turns out that a few of these roadside stands boasted live lizards, buckets of frogs, and toad skewers for purchase.Take a virtual road-trip through Thailand’s array of unique roadside goodies. You know you’re hungry.

Who’s tired of tame and safe cultural gatherings? I think I am. Good thing Todd at Todd’s Wanderings has pulled together some of the gnarliest matsuris (festivals) that take place in Japan. And let me tell you, these gatherings aren’t for the weak. One of them seems to take on some parade-like characteristics, but don’t be fooled, this isn’t Disneyland. Todd explains, “When other floats are encountered each side spins their one ton float in a show of strength culminating in a mad dash at top speed into each other in a bone crunching crash. Teams battle for dominance until one float has pinned the other to the ground.” Fabulous! Who’s up for a trip to Japan? OK, maybe let’s just pretend – read more here.

There is an unfortunate similarity between the robes certain Latin countries wear during their Holy Week processions and those that are worn by the KKK. Yes, that KKK. The tragic infamy of the cone-shaped hood was most definitely not lost on a couple of Lonely Planet Bloggers. Abigail, from Inside the Travel Lab, who witnessed the processions in Sevilla, Spain, reflects, “It’s a shame that the outfits, a tradition that dates back to the 14th century,…now trigger images of the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, fire and fear to those of us more familiar with stories from America than Andalucía.” Here, Abigail brings to life images of Spain’s most famous Holy Week processions in hopes of creating new and more positive memories of the historic and controversial costume.

Meanwhile, Tanya of Are we there yet? World Travels with Three Kids recounts her experience witnessing similar processions in a Brazilian town. Here, she tells how she battled with whether to purchase her children the keepsake puppets (with demonically lit-up red eyes) and also sheds light on the tradition and where it comes from. She explains, “It turns out that the symbolism…is actually quite sinister. They, after all, are the bad guys in the story as they are the ones hunting down Jesus to crucify him. This background helps to explain a bit this unique custom.”

Captured in photos, the duo over at Photito’s Blog take you on a journey into the watery wonderland of Venice. Through their words and pictures, it becomes evident that Venice is more than just the canal-filled city that we may all know it to be, but rather a city that lives with water in so many more ways than we can imagine. “People have adopted a way of coping with the ever present water ways which means that they all own a pair of hard core, waist high wellington boots. They all know what it means when the tidal alarm sounds…,” tells Vibeke. See for yourself a side of Venice that you may not have yet discovered.

I don’t know about you, but my parents have never called ME “mom” or “dad,” but perhaps if I were Lebanese, they might just have. According to Georgia of Ginger Beirut, “Lebanese dads call their kids ‘daddy’ and mums call their kids ‘mummy.'” This is only but one of the strange yet humorous quirks that she has encountered during her year living in Lebanon. Read more about why you should get rid of your credit cards and start investing in couture gowns here.

Bird hunting, deer hunting, head hunting – those are all so yesterday. It’s time to get on board with mushroom hunting like those in Catalunya, Spain. “Most Catalans wake up early on the weekend morning and drive to forests with baskets in tow to collect mushrooms,” comments Jennifer of Orange Polka Dot. She goes on to tell about her “master mushroom hunter” gardner and even her own attempt at tracking down the potentially deadly delicacy. Indulge your curiosity for fungi by reading more about this peculiar Catalan tradition here.

Finally, if you’ve been tuned into my blog, then you already know that last week I introduced you to another one of Spain’s unique customs, which just so happens to come in the form of an extra trashy tip for finding good Spanish food.

With that, I leave you to your own comfortable surroundings, unique customs and whatever oddly normal tradition it is that you have in your corner of the world. Considering that I’m in Spain, I’m going to go to my local tapas bar and throw some dirty napkins and cigarette butts on the ground just so that I can feel right at home. What makes your part of the planet strangely special?

To read up on other LonelyPlanet BlogSherpa carnivals, you can visit the previous one hosted by Travel with Den Den, in which the BlogSherpas shared memorable moments from their travels. Meanwhile, stay tuned for the next carnival on regrettable trips, which will be hosted by The Turkish Life.

November 11, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Madrid, Spain, Traditions

So you’re visiting Madrid, exhausted from dodging the thousands of people haphazardly wandering the streets, your ears are slightly ringing from the honking horns and booming Spanish voices, and all you want is something decent to eat in a respectable establishment. But every time you peek into one of the tons of tapas bars in Madrid, you see trash on the ground. Yes, trash. If you’ve been to Spain, then you know this is an entirely feasible scenario.

I know what you’re thinking – sure, sensory overload, exhaustion, hunger, but trash on the floors of restaurants? The pot has left you, Tortuga Viajera (a Spanish way of saying you’ve lost your mind). Now imagine if I told you those are actually the respectable establishments that you indeed want to stop at! Again, no joke – I still have my pot. Welcome to one of Spain’s very, VERY unique customs.

Madrid is filled with these tapas bars and “cafeterias,” which are basically a cross between a restaurant and a bar. They are the go-to spot for a coffee, snack, drink or basic Spanish meal. The bar usually features a selection of snacks out on display, tins of useless paper-thin napkins, and a smattering of ashtrays (not as of January 2nd when smoking in public places becomes illegal in Spain! Woohoo!!). Perched on barstools are often my favorite Spaniards, the grandpas, who are usually busy perusing a newspaper or just chatting it up with their buddies.

What you notice next is that when someone uses one of those completely ineffective napkins, they just go on and throw it on the floor. Then Gramps finishes his cigarette and drops it on the ground right below him like it’s no big deal. All right, so maybe it sounds a little gross and seems to have no justification whatsoever – but wait, it does! Because, logically, the best cafeterias should have the biggest crowds, and therefore the largest amount of trash on the ground. So this seemingly lazy Spanish tradition has just made it easier for you, the tired and hungry traveler, to find some good grub!!! Surely this is exactly the reason that the natives don’t simply just throw their dirty napkins in the garbage. Silly Spaniards, you thought you had us fooled when really you were just being thoughtful! (Ok, so maybe it’s really just an old, useless tradition, but I prefer to charm it up a bit, don’t you agree?)

So there you have it, the trash mystery is solved and now it’s possible for you to spot the best places to grab a quick drink and bite to eat in Spain (well, unless it’s right after lunch and they’ve already cleaned up, in which case, flip a coin!). I should mention, it was no small task trying to take pictures of trashy floors. You can imagine the looks I received when entering bars, only to frantically inspect their floors and then take pictures. I wish I could have gotten more, but the dirty looks (ha! Get it? Dirty!) were getting a little old.

Aside from my enthusiasm in giving you such a tip, I’m posting this blog as a part of the next Lonely Planet BlogSherpa Carnival, which will be hosted by yours truly! Tune in next week for a round up of unique customs around the world.

November 4, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Spain, Travel, Travels in Spain

I used to like to ski. I started when I was just a little tike – my dad would leave me at the kiddy ski-school where I would practice my pie-slice formation as I slowly worked my way down the miniature hills of the bunny slopes. When I hit about 20-years-old, I decided to reignite my “passion” for ski (stop laughing). I bought myself a season pass, some awesome ski pants, and was seriously entertaining the idea of getting some skis. Then I went skiing and it occurred to me that not only did the idea of careening down a steep incline on slippery sticks seem like a terribly bad idea, but I absolutely hated being cold. Really, really hated being cold. I haven’t gone skiing since.

So this brings me to last Saturday’s scuba adventure when I sat submerged under ten meters of freezing cold, murky water while I got sloshed around like I was in the laundry cycle. Wrapped up like a sausage in my dive suit, all I could hear was the sound of my oxygen mask and my really loud thoughts saying “didn’t we agree, Tortuga Viajera, that all activities involving being cold truly suck!?? Oh, look, there’s a fish. Oooooh, hello fishy. But back to the point, Tortuga, what the heck are you doing!?!?” This was nothing like diving in Thailand where the weather was toasty and the water was crystal clear. Talk about false advertising.

This was the first of what should have been four dives in the Mediterranean off the coast of Murcia. I was there to get scuba diving certified so that Jacobo and I could go diving in Tenerife this coming December (which, gosh darn it, better be warm or else the only place I’ll be diving is in a jacuzzi). Our dives were cut short, however, presumably because they realized, after the first three dives, that it was a miracle that none of us drowned or went into hypothermic shock. So, with that, we were faced with the option of staying in Murcia, a region of Spain seemingly covered in plastic due to its countryside being full of covered vegetable crops, or check out some place new. The idea of staying in Murcia at our bizarre hotel was indeed tempting – at first I thought it was the worst hotel on the planet, but then I found myself relishing in finding new tacky animal figurines nestled in peculiar corners of the building (plus, I really do appreciate how they’ve embraced Halloween like no other Spaniards have). I would go into more detail about the strangeness of this establishment, but will refrain for fear that I might offend someone who happens to really like excessive amounts of animal figurines. (But Mom, seriously, I think you should consider getting rid of that weird stone rabbit in the backyard. The turtle, however, can stay, for obvious reasons.)

The idea of possibly better weather elsewhere was the deal breaker, so we hit the road and headed north to the community of Valencia. We were wrong, the weather was still horrible (and by horrible, I mean below 75℉), but at least I wasn’t haunted in my sleep by stone troll statues coming to life. For this second part of our journey we stayed in the coastal town of Altea, where we spent the day traversing its hillside streets, and stopping for drinks, coffee and tea in just about every spot in town. The highlight was surely our coffee on the terrace of the restaurant La Claudia where we were able to savor a full view of the Mediterranean and city below us. Not having had enough, we returned there later for a spectacular dinner, which was hardly Spanish, but rather a bit more San Francisco-ish (fusion cuisine versus large traditional dishes). Each dish was perfect, and made a break from my cherished Spanish cuisine a sacrifice worth making. My life is so rough.

Now I’m back in Madrid and still not a certified diver. I’m only certifiably insane for subjecting myself to an experience that can only most closely be compared to that of a stranded Titanic passenger. Let’s just hope that Tenerife can turn my scuba-frown upside down.

This post is a part of the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa carnival in which travel bloggers share some of their most regrettable trips. Head over to The Turkish Life to read more.

*As usual, pictures of the trip can be found on the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page. Don’t get too excited – there aren’t any of me in my super attractive, full body scuba gear.

November 1, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Spain, Traditions, Travel, Travels in Spain

As we walked Sevilla’s labyrinth of streets, my friend snapped pictures of the yellow and white buildings, the cathedral and the lush, green patios. Meanwhile, my camera remained nestled all lonely in my purse. It was my third trip to the city and I wasn’t as inspired by the usual sites.

But then, suddenly, I spotted a humble statue of the Virgin Mary wedged up above into the corner of one of Sevilla’s quaint little buildings. I grabbed my camera and captured a quick shot. Walking another 100 feet, I reached for my camera again – above me yet another Mary, but this one colorful, made of tiles, and flanked by two lanterns. Every few blocks or so, I would spot her thoughtfully displayed on the yellow-trimmed facades. With each one I grew more bewildered and hypnotized by her sorrowful gaze and how she was almost always showered in radiant colors of blue, gold and red. I was becoming engulfed in my own little scavenger hunt, scanning the city walls to see where I might find her next.

I suppose during my several visits to Sevilla it had never occurred to me the excess of Marys around the city. Living in Spain has gotten me quite used to the abundance of Catholic images, street names and, well, people names. (The names “Inmaculada” or “Concepción” no longer perplex me – that said, I don’t think they are on my short list of future baby names.) While I’m not a particularly religious person (I’ll go with the very cliched “I’m spiritual”), I find myself fascinated by these symbols, such as Mary, as much for their beauty as for what they say about the culture. And who wouldn’t be curious about the image of this stunning lady, plastered throughout one of Spain’s most famous cities?

So then, you may ask – why so many Marys, Sevilla? Well, it turns out that the city is an especially Catholic one, not to mention that it happens to be famed for hosting Spain’s most famous processions during Holy Week. When this religious week arrives, people flock to Sevilla to witness float-like structures (often of the Virgin Mary) hauled solemnly across the city. Onlookers watch in admiration, clamoring to get near it, as though it were the Pope himself. Needless to say, Mary is quite a famous lady in this country, but even more so in Sevilla.

Beyond just the Marys, Sevilla seems to represent everything that one might imagine Spain to be – hot and sticky summers, yellow and white buildings with flower-filled window boxes, soulful flamenco wherever you turn, and a passion for bullfighting. It’s a city to get lost in (whether you like it or not, really) given its jumble of twisting and turning narrow streets, in which you’ll find yourself dodging cars like a torero dodges bulls. I’d already fallen in love with the city for these reasons, however – this time my fascination was a bit more Mary-related.

As our two days in Sevilla came to a close, it became abundantly clear to me that my search was not over. So the morning before we headed home, I rose early with my no-longer-lonely camera in hand, and set out to go Mary hunting on my own. The air was crisp and the city still seemed to be yawning and stretching as I got lost in its quiet streets with my eyes glued to the building walls. Coming upon my new favorite gal, a big grin would spread across my face (a possible fist pump may have been involved a few times too) and I would start clicking away, drawing strange looks from the few people that passed by. I couldn’t help it, though, there was just something about Mary.

*To see all the pictures of Mary that your heart could ever desire, and more, visit the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page.