May 13, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Spain, Traditions, Travel, Travels in Spain

I didn’t expect to feel so sick to my stomach. I’d seen many awkward images of Spanish men wearing the white, cone-shaped hoods before. It wasn’t anything new. And yet, there I stood, with my tummy knotted in discomfort as though I were witnessing something horribly awful.

It was Maundy Thursday and dutiful Catholics lined the small pueblo streets of Zamora. And then there was me, camera in hand, jaw dropped and wide-eyed. I was witnessing one of many Easter processions, which consist of religious, parade-like journeys through cities across Spain. And by “Easter” and “parade,” I’m not referring to the American-style holiday filled with bunnies, decorative eggs and chocolate (although, I’m trying my darnedest to incorporate them into Spanish culture). Of course it wasn’t the lack of holiday candy that caused my jaw to drop (tragic as that may be), but you already knew that after seeing the above picture.

During this week, many Spanish Catholics gather to express their dedication and reflect on the Passion of Christ. To demonstrate this, men and women make a solemn and ever-so-slow walk through town, which can last for hours (occasionally, they even stop mid-way for a snack – this is Spain, people!). Sometimes the men go barefoot, sometimes they play an instrument, and sometimes they bear the weight of a float-like statue. But almost always, the men wear the same costume – one that uncomfortably resembles an infamous outfit back in the States.

The drums, trumpets and church bell started to sound, as I stood squished between the Zamora townspeople. In unison, the men began their gradual march. With each beat of the drum, they paced forward in silence as one. Behind the brotherhood of men, followed the women, who dressed in mourning by wearing black from toe to head. A decorative comb finished off their look, fanning out above their upswept hair, and suspending a drape of dark lace along their backs. Many women wore ballerina flats, while others wore sky-high heals, and some out of sacrifice wore no shoes at all (although, as I’m sure any lady will attest, wearing massively high heels is almost always a much larger sacrifice than going barefoot).

Within a matter of minutes, I’m pretty sure that my breath and heart-rate slowed to the beat of the drums. My pulse no longer raced with rage, and the butterflies in my stomach seemed to stop fluttering. Almost in a trance, I found myself nearly weepy while viewing the humble and hypnotizing custom.

My emotions toyed with me. My gut hated the sight of what I’ve always known to be a symbolically deplorable outfit, but my heart saw something different. The thoughts rolled around in my head, perplexing me by the extremes.

Slowly, I began to understand why these people looked forward to this tradition with such intensity. Sure there weren’t Easter baskets, or Cadbury cream eggs, but something more captivating and meaningful had taken over the Spanish streets. As most reflected on Christ’s death and rebirth, I reflected on their reflecting, and as silly as it sounds, the humility was truly contagious.

Revisiting my videos (which I plan to post soon!), I still feel those same uncomfortable sensations stirring around in my stomach. But after only a few minutes of watching, my heart slows again. And while my tummy continues to rumble, this time it’s from hunger. I suppose it only seems fitting that I’m now going to edit the video while noshing on my remaining Easter chocolate from the States.

To see more photos, please visit the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page.

April 23, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Madrid, Spain, Traditions

Standing in Madrid’s Plaza de Cibeles, I was nearly alone, save for my friend, dozens of policemen and several reporters smoking their last cigarettes before going on air. There was an eerie quiet – surely the calm before the proverbial storm.

Just as the clock struck midnight, cheers broke out, seeping from windows, bars and cars across the city.

“They won,” I said to my friend.

Instantaneously, people started to flow like an avalanche into the round-about from all of its connecting streets.

Real Madrid had just won the Copa del Rey in a match against their biggest rival – Barcelona. It’s a rivalry that puts the likes of the Dodgers and the Giants to shame (go Giants!). We were standing in the heart of the soon-to-be fiesta, where Madrileños come after every Real Madrid win to celebrate and await the team’s arrival (and also where we went last June after the World Cup win).

As fans made their way from the far corners of the city, we watched as massive signs unravelled declaring Real Madrid as champions. Meanwhile, giant speaker structures began to blast the traditional Real Madrid Hymn. It was as if someone had given the thumbs up to flip on the switch at a traveling carnival – going from quiet and vacant, to loud, boisterous and full of energy.

My friend and I stood frozen as we watched the chaos unfold in front of us, and perplexed by what this would have been had they not won. Would these same signs be hauled to the dump? Would the press towers and scaffolding be dismantled and stored away for the next big game?

Soon the square overflowed with chanting teenage boys downing beers while wrapped in Spanish and Real Madrid flags. Some carried horns, others banged on drums, all reminding me that virtually any good news is reason to celebrate in this adopted country of mine.

Realizing we were far too old and far too American to stay up late enough to watch the soccer team’s reception, we headed back home. Like salmon swimming up stream, we fought a current of youngins partying while staggering their way to the festivities.

Arriving at my house, fat rain drops began to speckle the city sidewalks. Only moments later, curled cozily in bed, the incessant sound of rain falling and victory horn-honking would lull us to sleep. It turns out that proverbial storm wasn’t so proverbial after all.

*Pardon the lack of photos – I only had my cell phone!

March 30, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Spain, Traditions, Travel, Travels in Spain, Video

Because words can’t really capture the spectacle that is Fallas, I’ve put together the below video. To read more about Las Fallas and my great “unexpectations,” check out this week’s blog post, which is being featured on Gogobot.

If you are having trouble viewing this video, please click here.

March 24, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Spain, Traditions, Travel, Travels in Spain

I went to Valencia last weekend to experience Spain’s famous fire-filled festival – Las Fallas. Forget Fallas, though – the fire part anyway. I think there are more important subjects to discuss here, like the abundance of churros con chocolate. You knew I’d find a way to make this about the food, didn’t you?

Us Americans (or Californians at least) have grown up with some version of the Mexican churro – that crispy but chewy fried stick of dough rolled in layers of cinnamon and sugar. Sure, those are pretty darn good, but they aren’t the churros I’m talking about here. Spanish churros, like their Mexican counterparts, are also made of fried batter, but are instead shaped like a looped raindrop. And while they don’t come with a dousing of sugar, they do come with a side of hot chocolate, which, let’s be honest, totally beats those amateur wannabes that we eat in the US. The hot chocolate is a treat unto itself – it’s dense and somehow light (to taste anyway), and ready to be dipped, drank or downed.

So what has this got to do with Valencia and Las Fallas? Well, it just so happens that during this festival (and many of Spain’s festivals for that matter), Valencia converts into a churros and chocolate wonderland. Halelueia! For every falla (the structures errected throughout the city and burned at the week’s end), there certainly must be at least one or two churros stands just ready and waiting to serve the hungry (translation: drunk) masses at all hours of the day.

These stands don’t just stop at serving the typical churros and hot chocolate – they also tempt us with their chocolate covered churros, and ginormous churro-y tubes stuffed with something (who cares what, really) and then topped off with sprinkles (SOLD!). Then there are the porras – a fatter, less attractive version of the churro, but equally delicious.

It turns out that the already over-the-top selection of sweets mentioned above just isn’t quite enough for this festival of flames, fireworks and apparently fried foods. There is one more detail you might notice at these stands – it’s the hanging pumpkins (which naturally got my American attention, causing visions of Halloween and pumpkin pie to dance in my head). This is because Valencia happens to specialize in buñuelos de calabaza (basically pumpkin donuts).

Before you get all geeked out about the pumpkin part (like I did), let me clarify – these pastries taste nothing like pumpkin. Tear, I know. The good news is that they are basically the most amazing donut-like concoctions on the planet. Fresh out of the fryer, they throw them into a bag with sugar, shake them up, and hand them over so that you may commence with your heart attack. You can imagine my disappointment when I accidentally ordered a bulging bag of twelve…

I realize this begs the question – where is a picture of these pumpkin-y treats? I would have taken one, but I was kinda busy eating. Priorities.

*Have I left you longing to learn more about Las Fallas?? Stay tuned – in the coming days Gogobot will be featuring a blog of mine about the festival (I will post a link here once it is up). You can also see pictures on the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page.

January 27, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Madrid, Spain, Traditions

Because I’m a person that keeps my promises, I’ve finally brought myself to continue my research at the famous Mallorquina bakery in Madrid. It is an intense research that requires one to have an open mind, and above all else, an empty stomach. Yes, my friends, I would be trying five more desserts in my laborious effort to test all the scrumptious goodies that the Mallorquina serves up.

First up was the ensaimada – a pastry that originates from the Spanish island of Mallorca. When at the Madrid airport, you can always spot the folks returning from the Mediterranean paradise – they’re the ones who are hauling home big boxes of the sweet treat (and incidentally, people I feel I should make friends with). Given the bakery’s name (Mallorquina implies some relation to Mallorca), I suppose my expectations were high when I dug into the famous dessert. Sadly (very sadly!), it seemed rather flavorless and uninteresting. It was entirely unlike the ones from Mallorca, which are often the size of a pizza, and so delicious that I could eat the entire thing in one sitting if someone let me. Guess I will just have to go to Mallorca to get my ensaimada fix…or the airport.

Carefully scoping out the display of plates, we decided on our second dessert, roscón, which is typically served during the holidays on Three King’s Day. The cake (for lack of better words) comes as a large, donut-shaped pastry, sprinkled with almond slices, draped with candied pieces of fruit (ick), and occasionally filled with whipped cream. Usually hidden somewhere in the cake is a little charm of sorts – whoever ends up with the charm will have good luck in the year to come. (One year I ended up with a scary glass clown. I do think it was a pretty lucky year though, despite the odd clown.) Upon sampling this holiday favorite, my friend Sophia declared that it was the best she’d ever had. Confession – neither of us are Spanish (had you fooled, right?!), BUT we are both married to Spaniards, and between the two of us, we’ve lived here for over seven years – so obviously we know our roscón (just go with me on this one). Fluffy, light, and refreshing – the only thing that could make it better would be a cup of Spanish hot chocolate (because EVERYTHING is better with hot chocolate).

As our sugar intake increased, so did our inability to select decent pastries, which I will blame on what I’ve coined as “dessert goggles.” Yep, we ended up with some bizarre creation called tortel de hojaldrehojaldre meaning puff pastry (works for me), and tortel because I guess they got bored of using something more sensible like tarta. Whatever. Round and unimpressive in appearance, we didn’t expect much other than a sweet pastry. And that is was, but with a peculiar flavor and texture, which were apparently attributed to the cabello de ángel – that is, angel hair. I guess it was some sort of stringy, sugary mess of squash (yes, the vegetable) oddly hidden inside of an unsuspecting pastry, resulting in an unsuspecting me. Lesson learned – when it comes to squash-related desserts, stick to pumpkin pie.

After a pastry that contains mushy squash strings, it’s only natural that one would want to compensate with a chocolate-heavy delicacy, am I right? With that in mind, we selected the sugar-encrusted napolitana with chocolate oozing out the ends. My kind of dessert (but wow, that picture makes it look very unappetizing). Remember that chocolate palmera from last time? The one with the frosting that tasted like cupcakes? Well this napolitana seemed to be stuffed with the same chocolately crack-like concoction. If I didn’t fear losing Sophia as a friend, I would have dissected that thing and scooped out every last drop of sweetness. But I’m too classy for that, so I’m just admitting it here for all the world to read. Don’t judge.

Not unlike having too many drinks, having too many desserts suddenly makes you think that you can just keep on eating them and eating them. And because we hadn’t quite fulfilled our cocoa craving, we honed right in on this chocolate cake, which appeared to be covered in a shell of thick frosting. Now, as much as I sing such high praises of my beloved chocolate, for some reason I’m not a crazy fan of the cake (perhaps too many of those sub-par Safeway/Cosco cakes have tainted my love for it), so when this one turned out as delicious as it did, I was pleasantly surprised. Layers of yellow cake doused in a sugary syrup (go big or go home right?) were sandwiched between thick blankets of fudgy goodness. It was a bit much, really, but after that weird squash-tortel thing, the extreme was needed.

If I’m being honest here (which I am because I’m such a dedicated researcher and all that), I would have to say that this trip to the bakery was somewhat disappointing. No major food-gasms were happening, but rather just an unsatifisying sugar high. Because I like to give second chances though, I will push myself to make a third trip to the bakery to continue my hard work. It’s rough, but someone HAS to do it, right? Right??!!!??!