Spain

June 4, 2013 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

Oh dear. Do you still remember me? The deep passion for tortilla española? The adventures with sheep? The cheese, ohhh, the manchego cheese!?! Yes, it’s me Tortuga Viajera, and I know, it’s been a little while.

After a couple of weeks of silence, though, I’m back, and (sort of) have an excuse: my father recently came to visit me in Spain. During his nearly two-week trip, we traveled up north, weaving in and out of the regions of Asturias and Cantabria, and covered ground here in Madrid, heading to places like El Escorial and the Valley of the Fallen. We ate, we saw, we ate some more, and then my dad finally got food poisoning (because apparently this runs in the family). Overall, though, it was a magical a trip. And here are some of the photos to prove it.

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The seaside town of Cudillero, where I will live one day. Promise.
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The Cudillero lighthouse.
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The world’s best arroz con leche – EVER!!! – from Restaurante Isabel in Cudillero. See that mess drizzled on top? That, my foodie friend, was sugary syrup burnt to form a crusty layer of magic atop the tapioca-textured concoction. It was a miracle in my mouth.
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I present you with extreme fishing at Cabo Vidio. Shortly after this, the guy left his two poles propped up on the ledge and left. We still can’t figure out his strategy. Seriously, can someone tell me how the fish he’s apparently catching don’t yank the pole straight out into the ocean? Really, I want to know.
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The view of the Picos de Europa from just above the mountain village of Cahecho, and after an uber-Cantabrian lunch of cocido montañes at Casa Lamadrid (well worth the car sickness-inducing drive, should you be in these parts).
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A backroad in the Cantabrian village of Potes. Not a bad place to get lost during a countryside stroll.
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On our final night, we slept in the 30-person village of Bárcena Mayor. We stayed at the only open hotel (if you can even call it that) in town and were their only guests.
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Blooming flowers in the gardens behind the El Escorial Monastery. Spring and summer have been trying to make an appearance here in Spain, but it’s been slow going.

April 25, 2013 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

Camel races are a good time, to be sure, but after a trip to relatively alcohol-free Dubai, my mother and I needed to follow up with some wine. What better place to do the trick than a couple of days in Spanish wine country?

Truth is, though, that pretty much all of Spain is wine country — head in any direction and you’ll end up in one of the 62 (!) official Spanish wine regions (called denominaciones de origen, or DO’s). But on this trip we had our sights set on undoubtedly the nation’s most famous wine region, la Rioja, and, more precisely, a return to one of the country’s – and the world’s – most prestigious hotels, Marqués de Riscal.

Do you recognize it? Unless you’ve been under an architecture rock (totally possible), the structure’s undulating steel panels might seem a little familiar. Perhaps they remind you of the artsy exterior of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, or maybe the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, just to name a few.

Designed by revered architect Frank Gehry, the Marqués de Riscal Hotel was built in 2006 as an addition to its namesake winery, located in the miniature pueblo of Elciego. Its goal: to raise awareness around wine and the region, and also of course to increase visits to the winery itself. And oh boy, has it ever worked: Annual visits have surged from a humble 5,000 (pre-hotel) to over 60,000. It worked for me too, I guess, as I’ve stayed there twice now and can only hope that we’ll go back again one day (fingers crossed!).

Apart from lounging around in our rad hotel room while spying the Elciego Cathedral from a cushy bed, we also went on a tour of the winery’s bodegas, and even ventured outside of town to some of our other favorite La Rioja spots.

First was the pueblo of Laguardia, which sits precariously on a maze of bodegas and, as such, cars aren’t permitted to traverse the fragile, walled city.

Then we headed to the village of Ezcaray to do a little shopping (undoubtedly my mother’s favorite pastime). There, we stopped by the Mantas Ezcaray workshop to peruse its shelves, which bulge with rainbow-hued scarves and fuzzy blankets (many of which are exported around the world and sold at much higher prices!).

On my last visit to Ezcaray, I stayed at Casa Masip (pictured above) and dined at Michelin-star-rated Echaurren — both recommended, especially the restaurant, which is one of my favorites in Spain.


And that was my mom’s trip to Spain (and beyond, really): Dubai, La Rioja, and even quick visits to Segovia and La Granja. Next up: My father will be making his second and much-anticipated visit to Europe. Stay tuned for more family adventures, but next time — I’m guessing — without the camels.

April 12, 2013 - Posted by Erin in Books, Food and wine, Madrid, Spain

Yes, Plaza Mayor is lovely, and checking out the world’s oldest restaurant, El Botín, at least once is pretty cool too, but, like any good traveler must know, these types of places rarely are local favorites. With that in mind, here are a few of the spots that I frequent the most, and that typically don’t make it on to the tourist radar.

Coffee and work
On any given day, you’ll find me hanging out at (loitering?) the cafés of Madrid’s Malasaña neighborhood, bumming off free WiFi and sipping on a comforting cup of joe. My favorite, favorite spot is Pepe Botella, where the old-school café serves up their caps with a tasty cookie (which is really all that it takes to win me over). Other favorites include Tipos Infames, where I can surround myself with literary inspiration in the bookstore/wine bar/café/art gallery, and La Bicicleta for its wide open space and occasional early-morning hip-hop music (right up there with cookie-awesomeness). Finally, if you’re just looking for coffee (even coffee grounds) and don’t give a rip about WiFi, head to Toma Cafe; what I consider to be the epicenter of emerging coffee culture in Madrid.



Shop
I’m not going to lie: I don’t shop a lot in Spain. I find most clothing (save for shoes!) to be overpriced and/or under quality, at least in comparison to what I can find back home. That said, I never pass up an opportunity to visit Maxi at Antigua Casa Crespo. In his 150-year-old family shop, he and his wife sell the ultimate Spanish summer shoe: the alpargata (AKA the espadrille). Available in loads of styles and colors, the 100% made-in-Spain shoes cost — if you can believe it — under 10 euros for the basic style. Between the shoes and the friendly service, I never tire of going back for more. (Read more about Antigua Casa Crespo in the article I wrote here.)

Eat
My mouth-watering go-to is always La Ardosa – I just can’t ever get enough of their juicy tortilla, which I’m convinced must taste better given the Spanish-tiled walls and dusty-bottle-covered shelves. Then, when it comes to market experiences, I’m afraid I can’t hang with El Mercado de San Miguel (sorry!) – it’s nice, really, but jam-packed with people (eh hem, tourists), which I find not so fun. Instead I go to El Mercado de San Antón (especially for a nice selection of croquetas) or to Mercado de la Paz, where I can marvel at fresh produce and have my pick of pastries. Finally, for a proper sit-down meal, I go for the funky and inventive plates at La Gabinoteca.

See
My favorite somewhat-hidden spot to see is the Museo Sorolla, an inner-city mansion-meets-museum that houses the work of Valencia-born artist Joaquín Sorolla. Once his home, the museum is still furnished with his belongings, making it a lot more inviting than its other art-filled counterparts. And what I especially love are the gardens — free to enter, and filled with flowers and fountains, they remind me of a mini Andalucian paradise.

So now you tell me: What are you favorite spots in Madrid or in your city?

February 13, 2013 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Madrid, Spain

Wafts of tasty fumes seeped from my friend Nacho’s outdoor brick oven. It was 2pm and if my stomach could talk it would have said, “oh yes, come to mama.”

But there was a slight problem: Cooking inside that oven were two of my biggest food foes.

You might remember that years ago, after pretending to be a shepherd for a day, I fell in love with sheep. I snuggled with lambies and made buddies with a sheep named Numantina. Since then, I decided that – as illogical as it may seem – I would not, could not, eat lamb (except for that trip to Turkey, during which exceptions had to be made, obviously). And I’ve stuck to it pretty steadfastly, even putting in special effort to avoid forming relationships with other lovable-but-tasty animals, like full-grown Wilbur-style pigs (lest that leave me feeling compelled to give up my beloved jamón).

Last weekend I was faced with two baby farm friends, though, that would challenge my resolve: a suckling pig, called cochinillo, and lechazo, a lamb that had only drunk its mother’s milk. Inside that oven, the cuddly little critters roasted. Yes, I would eat bread and salad, and nothing more, I affirmed to myself.

Oh but then came lunch, in a setting that infused me with me Spanish-ness. Warmed by a glowing fire, my mind danced with images of a castañuela-clicking flamenco dancer, and a bullfighter waving the electric-pink cape that hung on the wall beside me. It was as though the room were filled with propaganda solely for the purpose of converting me into a lamb-loving, baby-pig-craving, meat-eating Spaniard. Grrr, Spain!

The others at our table of eight relished each bite of the clay-pot-cooked creations. Meanwhile, I cowardly dipped and dunked my bread in the lamb broth, savoring the rich flavor without fully committing. Jacobo wouldn’t let it be so, though, oh no. He taunted me with me a fork-full of lechazo, insisting, deviously, that I try it.

And then it happened: I indulged in a few beautiful, perfectly cooked, decadent bites of lamb. It was brief and magical, and, like (the country of) Turkey, a worthy exception to the rule.

Now, being the completely contradictory eater that I am, I think I’m going to treat myself to a fat plate of jamón ibérico. All this talk of pig and Spanish food has really made me hungry.

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January 31, 2013 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Madrid, Spain

I found a hidden wonderland here in Madrid, but I’m a little hesitant to tell anyone about it. I know I’m not the only one who’s discovered it, but I’m certain most tourists never make it there. So promise me you’ll keep it our little secret and not tell a soul?

I’d heard whispers about this mystical place before, but, until recently, I never knew where it was. And that’s because it basically hides inside a city block, like a parallel universe revealed behind a magic closet door. In fact, having recently moved to this secret spot’s neighborhood, I’d actually walked by it for months, not even realizing it was there. It’s that secret.

But then one day last autumn, I peered down an alleyway from which I regularly saw Spanish grandmas depart with grocery trolleys brimming with fresh vegetables. There was a certain hustle-and-bustle that indicated the alley was more than just a breezeway, but rather a tunnel to awesome, unexpected things.

So I wandered down it like Alice in a fantastical Wonderland adventure (and if you know me, then you know that the discovery of fresh and exotic foodstuffs is nothing short of Wonderland). And there it was: the most beautiful market in Madrid, Mercado de la Paz!!! I almost shed a full, proper, drip-able tear (not even close to exaggerating). One kiosk after another glowed with expertly arranged fruits and vegetables, fish that gawked at me with blank-but-tasty stares, and mountains of round, square and triangle blocks of cheese that tempted to timber into my mouth (these things are possible in Wonderland, you know).

The Art Nouveau-style market was constructed in 1879 in the residential/shopping neighborhood of Salamanca, and has around 60 kiosks. And while I’ve noticed a couple of the them are closed (a sad and probable outcome of la crisis), you’ll still come across almost every goody your market-loving heart could desire: vegetable sellers, butchers, fish stands, an herbal shop, a cobbler, dry cleaner, hair salon, bakeries, a couple cheese Meccas, gourmet products, and even a few tapas bars for good measure. Basically it’s heaven crammed into a small Spanish city block.

You’ll discover my hidden market paradise concealed between the streets Claudio Coello, Hermosilla, Ayala and Lagasca, with entrances on Lagasca, Ayala and Claudio Coello (the last being the most discreet of the three, despite its fat “MERCADO DE LA PAZ” sign, which I somehow managed to initially miss).

Now go find your market bliss amongst the La Paz kiosks, but just don’t go telling anyone about it. It’s our little secret, remember?