January 31, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Madrid, Spain, Travels in Spain

When I go home to the States and order myself a drink, I half expect a free tapa to magically appear in front of me. Even a measly plate of sad olives. Instead I get a glass of semi-drinkable, expensive wine with a side of nothing. Sigh.

But then I return to Spain.

To cure this season’s round of tapas blues, I went to Alcalá de Henares – Central Spain’s city full of generously portioned free tapas.

If you’ve ever been to Andalucia’s Granada, then you’re familiar with absurdly large complimentary tapas – tapas so big you should forget any notion of actually going out for a proper meal. Then there’s the Community of Madrid’s Alcalá de Henares (about a half hour outside the city), coming to the rescue for capital-dwellers looking for the same bang for their buck (err, euro).

After having visited the city a couple of times now, I’ve discovered two restaurants that live up to my free, gigantic-grub standard (I have one of those), and have pretty sweet ambiance to match. First up is Los Balcones de Alcalá, which will please you with its Andalucia-style patio area bordered by balconies and hanging plants. If the setting doesn’t do it for you, just lose yourself in a massive tapa. The last time I visited, they served me a mini-plate of fideuà (similar to paella, but with macroni-like noodles instead of rice – ain’t nothing wrong with that!), followed by more free tapas with each beverage.

Another recent discovery is Las Cuadras de Rocinante, with its small unsuspecting entrance nestled in an almost unnoticeable corner of Calle de Carmen Calzado. Until you walk down the restaurant’s long hallway, you won’t realize that it houses a cozy room filled with tables and a bar. My recent visit there came with a nice glass of wine and a fatty cazuela of garbanzo beans that made paying for food seem like a ludicrous idea.

Finally, when stuffing yourself silly with free tapas, the only logical way to conclude your day is with a box of rosquillas de Alcalá – the town’s namesake donut-style pastry slathered in an icing so tasty that I reckon it’s more than finger-licking good, it’s pretty much box-licking good (check out the bakery Salinas in Plaza Mayor).

What can I say – I like big tapas and I cannot lie. I also want to apologize for getting Sir Mix A lot’s classic tune stuck in your head for the duration of the day.

[travelist location=”Alcala de Henares, Spain” type=”img” url=”http://www.latortugaviajera.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/garbanzos.jpg”]

January 27, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Spain, Travels in Spain

One of the many, many benefits of living in Madrid: impromptu day-trips to places like Toledo. To give you a little mindless entertainment on this fine Friday, here are a few shots from yesterday’s visit. Have a marvelous weekend!

[travelist location=”Toledo, Spain” type=”img” url=”http://www.latortugaviajera.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/streets-of-toledo.jpg”]

January 24, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Travel, Trips to the US

With a picture like that to the left, it’s fair to say that New Mexican food tastes better than it looks. And don’t be fooled, that mess of a plate will set your mouth on fire too. After last week’s overview on my get-to-know-you session with the “Land of Enchantment”, now it’s time to talk food.

Red and green chile sauce
Expect most all New Mexican dishes to come with a serving of red or green chile sauce for dipping or dousing. We’re not talking about that canned stuff that you like to put cheddar cheese on, but instead salsas made of the hot chiles themselves. However, this is no harmless condiment; the sauce tastes borderline-torture hot, unless you’re a local and extra-used to having your mouth feel like it’s on fire (even you California Mexican-food buffs will likely find yourselves scrambling for a glass of something to wash away the pain). And these aren’t just any chiles, but rather indigenous varieties that locals proudly consider uniquely superior. New Mexicans like to down their picante poison by putting it on or mixed with just about anything. No dish is safe, and neither is your mouth. (The above hideous-looking dish is mixed with various chile sauces.)

New Mexican cuisine isn’t all spice and heat – it also has a softer and sweeter side. To combat the battle-zone of hotness that is your mouth, nosh on the ubiquitous sopapillas. Forget Mexican tortillas, this fried and puffy flatbread typically comes with a bottle of honey to elevate you to new levels of food euphoria. You’ll be happy to forgo the basket of bread when served this side reminiscent of funnel cake or beignets. In related news, since my trip to NM, I’ve become convinced that honey is a logical condiment for just about anything. That, and peanut butter (duh).

I’ve got a soft spot in my heart, or perhaps my stomach, for empanadas, which are Northwestern Spain’s pie-like pastry stuffed with savory concoctions made of meat, tuna or cod. Then New Mexico comes along with their sweet version, complete with “heat up and serve me”-worthy fillings made of peach, blueberry, or, holy-get-in-my-mouth-awesomeness like sweet potato. Sprinkled with sugar, the eat-on-the-go pastries will almost make you forget the fire still radiating from your mouth.

And finally, no trip to 100-year-old New Mexico would be complete without a pig-out fest on the state cookie (yeah, they have an official cookie!). Inhaling a biscochito, you might be reminded of a light shortbread cookie, with a hint of fennel, and dusting of sugar. To my now uber-Spanish palette, it seemed more like a thin version of Spain’s mantecados. Whatever they resemble, the final verdict is in: I want more and I want it often.

As I shared in last week’s post, there’s a lot more to New Mexico than the food. But just the temptation of these few treats seems reason enough to start training your mouth for a chile marathon, and your stomach for a biscochito fiesta.

*Please visit the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page to see more pictures from my trip to New Mexico.

January 17, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Expat, Madrid, Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe

“Watch your cell phones!” yelled the barista as a couple of teenagers prowled through the foreign-filled Madrid coffee shop. I knew the drill, so at first sight of the shady looking kids, I had a hand firmly covering my cell phone and the other clutching my purse.

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a band of sketchy kids pass through a Starbucks, fake petition in hand, appealing for irrelevant signatures. Just a couple of months ago, while sitting with a friend in another Starbucks, one of these kiddos laid their folder on top of my table, strategically over my cell phone. His plan was to distract me with his little spiel while dragging my phone off the table and into his greedy little hands. Fully aware of Madrid pickpocket shenanigans (and proudly not once a victim – knock on wood), I grabbed my phone and blurted out in Spanish, “I’m not an idiot!” – because that’s apparently the only thing that comes to my mind when someone tries to rob me.

I don’t tell this story to entertain, but to warn traveling foreigners to seriously watch their stuff. These freaks have all sorts of tricks up their sleeves (along with a lot of stolen crap too, I bet), so you should make sure you know where your possessions are at all times. And the more touristy the spot, the more careful you must be. Starbucks, especially in Madrid anyway, is a pickpocket’s paradise. I personally try to steer clear of it, but a certain Italian friend of mine – eh hem, Guido – insists on meeting there.

Happy traveling, and watch out for those teenage petition peddlers.

Update: Well in the event that you fall prey to pickpocket tricks, it turns out that a fellow blogger of mine in Spain, Cat at Sunshine and Siestas, just wrote a “what to do if your cell phone is stolen in Spain” blog post. Between her and me, we’ve got your foreign back.

January 11, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Travel, Trips to the US

“I expected more meth heads,” I told Laura as my trip to New Mexico came to a close. Perhaps I’d watched a touch too much Breaking Bad. After all, you know something’s wrong when you’re slightly disillusioned by the lack of druggies, crack houses and drug cartel violence.

Yep, I went to New Mexico while home for the holidays. When my best high-school friend, Laura, offered to fly me out there to visit her, I couldn’t resist. To prep for my journey, I overdosed on Breaking Bad episodes in hopes of acquainting myself with the region a bit. I got all sorts of amped to see the quirky city of Albuquerque and its, um, eclectic citizens. But, not surprisingly, while the TV show weaves in very real problems faced by New Mexico, there are of course other things that make the state noteworthy. Let’s discuss!

Nature-y goodness

Fans of wide open spaces will find just what they’re looking for in New Mexico – that is, a whole lot of nothing, punctuated by bushes, trees and even some peculiar rock formations.

Laura and I set off to Tent Rock to see some of New Mexico’s nothing, and it was something alright. We trekked between phallic rock formations in alleys carpeted with icy snow. Weaving through the slot canyons bordered by ribbons of rock, and up slippery mountainsides, we nearly tumbled to almost certain death more times than I care to remember. But despite the dicey hike, the journey was spectacular. My only suggestion: save it for less snowy months. And Laura says, during summer, avoid the afternoon, or risk getting swept away in flash floods. Basically, it’s a miracle we made it out alive.

If the Southwest were a company, their brand colors would be terracotta orange, turquoise and light purple, with secondary colors chile-pepper red and canary yellow (my ex-colleagues in branding will appreciate the nerdiness that just happened in that sentence). Shops, restaurants and even some houses all blanket themselves in the signature colors, making for a dazzling site distinct to the region.

I got pretty geeked-out on color (and mailboxes, but that’s another story) during our visit to Madrid. Yep, you read that right, but you probably didn’t say it right. Pronounced Mádrid (emphasis on the “a” as opposed to the “i”, as in the Spanish capital), the little city of just a couple hundred people attracts a hippy and artsy set. During a quick walk down the town’s main drag on Route 14, we got our fill of sculptures, wind chimes and fountains, mostly made from recycled materials. I hear that by night the city brightens with Christmas lights, ensuring a colorful visit no matter the time of day.

Awesome churches

I’ve done my fair share of church spectating. Stained-glass windows, Gothic stonework, Virgin Mary statues, repeat. They’re nice and often pretty breath-taking, but not necessarily awesome. New Mexico changed that for me. Its Catholic complexes marry Europe’s classic style, the Southwest’s vibrant colors, and the US’s love for a little Christmas decor. Overall, far more impressive than I expected them to be, and certainly the most intriguing churches I’ve come across in the US.

The grub
More important than anything else uniquely New Mexican is, of course, the food. But grub – in my world, anyway – is far too precious a subject matter to be squeezed into a blog post like a side of fries. Expect my usual rant on food in next week’s update.

It’s a shame that I didn’t get my fill of crazies in New Mexico – good thing San Francisco never disappoints. And now I’m back in Madrid (Ma-DRID, that is) where I’m dodging pickpockets and street-corner kleenex sellers. I guess I’ve got no shortage of “eclectic” in my life.