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.

16 comments
December 20, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Madrid, Spain, Travel


I knew l’d like my latest guest poster, Lauren. After all, she hails from the US, is married to a Spaniard, and loves Spanish food with the same unconditional passion as yours truly. With that in mind, she and I decided to swap guest posts this week, waxing poetic about none other than our not-so-secret love affair with our adopted cuisine. Once you’re done working up your appetite here, be sure to stop by her blog, Spanish Sabores, to read my post about holiday foods you should plan to pig out when visiting Spain during the winter.

As Christmas draws near, I once again find myself struggling to buy last minute gifts for friends and family. After traveling back and forth from Spain for almost three years now, the pretty fans, colorful ceramics, and cute flamenco aprons just won’t cut it anymore. So what do you do when you run out of gift ideas but your loved ones expect something Spanish? Resort to food gifts– and trust me, no one will complain!

Spain is full of potential food souvenirs. In fact, Spaniards themselves often bring a famed food from their town or region when visiting family and friends. Whether it is a homemade blood sausage, some marinated olives, or cookies and pastries made by the nuns in the local convent, Spaniards love giving food gifts.

So what can a visitor to Spain take back as a gift? Here are my five suggestions for delicious food gifts that will have friends and family wanting to hop the next flight to Spain!

Note: Unfortunately, as an American, my list cannot include any of Spain’s delicious pork products. Individuals are currently not allowed to transport sausage, ham, or other meat products into the United States. For more information about what you can and cannot bring into the US see this page.

5 Delicious Food Gifts from Spain

1. Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Did you know that Spain is the number one producer of olive oil in the world? Every year the country produces a variety of different olive oils that vary in taste and texture. Pop in to any supermarket and be prepared to see a wide selection.

2. Pimentón de la Vera: Pimentón is the Spanish word for paprika, and the most famous comes from La Vera in Cáceres, Spain. But if Cáceres is not a part of your itinerary, don’t worry, most supermarkets and specialty shops carry this coveted spice. Pimentón de la Vera comes in three types: sweet, semi-sweet, and hot. It adds an amazing smoky flavor and a nice orange-red color to Spanish dishes.

3. Artisan Honey: I never realized how many honey varieties there were until I came to Spain. Here you can find flavors like rosemary, thyme, lemon and orange. There is creamed honey, honey with nuts inside, and honeycomb. Different regions compete each year to be called the best honey in Spain.

4. Marzipan Sweets: Marzipan sweets are made primarily of almonds and sugar. They are most famous in Toledo, where each shop has its own special recipe, but you can find them sold all over Spain. A box of marzipan makes a delicious gift, and the sweets are also quite beautiful to look at!

5. Red Wine: Spain is the third largest producer of wine in the world and has several excellent wine regions. My favorite is the Ribera del Duero region in Castile and León. A good bottle of Spanish wine can be found for around 10€, making it worth your while to bring back a few bottles.

So forget about the shot glasses and T-shirts you were planning to buy and try the supermarket or (even better) local market instead. You’ll have some great, unique gifts and your family and friends will get a real taste of Spain!

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November 29, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Madrid, Spain, Traditions, Video

Before last week, I’d had two country line dancing memories: learning it during PE in high school (seriously), and then one very bored night in college. Little did I know that my third stab at shakin’ it western-style would be the most memorable and awesome line-dancing experience ever.

And that it would be in Spain.

And guess what? There’s a video.

Brace yourselves, people, this is going to be good. So, so painfully good.

A few months ago I discovered a country western festival taking place near Madrid – a discovery akin to gold, calorie-less chocolate and a winning lottery ticket. I went by myself and witnessed one of the most jaw-dropping experiences I’ve had in Spain to date, but having witnessed it alone, I felt a bit robbed. I would need to return with others to both verify and revel in its legendary-ness.

Good thing my friend Michella is all about country and all about America (and baking cupcakes, and decking out her entire house every time a holiday comes around – LOVE this girl). So when her birthday rolled around, her only request was that a group of us chicas from the US go line dancing.

So we did.

About 20 minutes north of Madrid, in dark fields at the end of a sketchy pot-holed road, is El Encuentro – scene of my original discovery a few months back. We arrived for what they claimed would be an “authentic American dinner.” We also arrived in a mix of flannel t-shirts, jean skirts, cowboy-ish boots and new names: Peggy Sue, Sara Beth, Marge and Lu Lu May (that’s me!). Go big or go home – am I right?

But you know who went big? Like, really big? The Spaniards. Cowboy hats, belt buckles, boots and button-up shirts emblazoned with “Wrangler” and “Rodeo Champion.” They brought their whole families, and also a whole lot of cowboy spirit.

Seated below a giant American flag (obviously), we selected our orders from the extensive menu: the Grand Canyon nachos, a round of random burgers, and a couple of Coors. OK, so the burger tasted more like meatloaf than burger, but hey, still American, right?

Then the line dancing began. And hot dog, these Spaniards knew their stuff. The four of us girls just stared and giggled in amazement – part impressed, part confused, and mostly just embarrassed that these guys pulled off American way better than we ever could. But we weren’t going to let that stop us. At the sound of Achy Breaky Heart, we skedaddled onto the dance floor to demonstrate our electric-slide skills (which I do have, believe it or not).

As the dancing wound down, one of the owners stopped by our table to say hello. We told him it was Michella’s birthday and about five minutes later they brought out a surprise birthday brownie while the entire farmhouse sang “happy birthday” in English. No joke. This was followed by us taking pictures with Spaniards like we were an attraction at Disneyland. Who’s this guy? Who knows. Who cares. (And yes, that’s a tipi in the top left.)

We eventually realized that all good things must come to an end and that it was time to call a cab – that is, see if a cab would actually journey out to the countryside to get us. Before we found that out, though, José the bartender had offered us a ride home. Stupid? Potentially. But really, who were we to stop such a historic night from taking its natural course.

As the three of us piled into the backseat, my man José turned on the ignition, and the car filled with the familiar beats of 50 Cent. Marveling at the dreamcatcher hanging from the rearview mirror of his VW golf, it became ultra clear to me that this night was one for the record books.

Back in Madrid’s Plaza Castilla, we parted ways – Marge and Peg mosied on home, while Michella – make that, Sara Beth – and I vowed to keep the night going strong. With that, we met up with her other friends at one of Madrid’s most popular bars, where people would inevitably stare at us and our ultra-American getups.

Having had a few drinks, I didn’t even realize the irony of the bar in Madrid that we ended up at that night. It’s called – of all things – Honky Tonk.

*It might be worth repeating from my previous blog – the Spaniards unfortunately don’t quite seem to grasp the meaning of a certain flag.

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November 10, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Spain

This latest guest post comes from one of my favorite American expats here in Spain: Stephanie over at theViatrix. She and I connected over Twitter, later discovering a slew of strange connections, both Madrid and not-so-Madrid related. Now we meet nearly once a week to write…make that pretend to write while we gab about díos knows what. A tour guide with over six years of madrileña life under her belt, she’s my go-to chica for input on all things awesome in Spain.

Erin asked me to write something for La Tortuga Viajera a while ago, and given our shared love of food and sugar, I immediately thought a blog on hot chocolate would be perfect. But it was August, and hot anything sounded awful. So now that it’s November and the weather’s getting cold, the time is right to start seeking out those steaming cups of cocoa.

First, a bit of background. While Switzerland may get all of the attention today, Europe’s chocolate history begins in Barcelona, where Columbus landed after his first voyage to the Americas. The court paid little attention to the mysterious beans until 30 years later, when Hernán Cortés proposed mixing them with sugar and spices to make the bitter Mexican drink more palatable. And Swiss Miss packets were born!

Not really, but Spanish monks did begin producing the yummy treat for members of the court, which had by this time moved to Madrid. Aristocrats fell in love with the sexy new drink (and perhaps with each other after drinking it) and Madrileños became so crazy for chocolate that they asked Pope Pius V to exempt the beverage from fasting regulations. “Liquidum non rumpit jenjunium,” ruled the Pope: “Liquid does not break the fast.” Is that why we say chocolate is “sinfully delicious?”

Spaniards managed to keep their discovery secret for almost a hundred years. That is, until Jewish chocolatiers began smuggling the stuff with them when fleeing the Inquisition. They first went to Portugal, where they were kicked out again, before finally settling in Bayonne, France. Here, in this relatively tolerant Basque border town, they started their own production, using beans brought back by the famously intrepid Basque sailors. By 1870, the industry had grown to employ more chocolatiers than in all of Switzerland, firmly establishing Bayonne as France’s chocolate capital (bet you didn’t know that).

Jump back to Barcelona, where the milling process had become mechanized in the 1780s, turning the city into Spain’s chocolate-producing center. You can even thank chocolate for one of Barcelona’s emblematic modernista buildings: Casa Amatller. During Barcelona’s boom years at the turn of the 20th century, chocolate magnate Antoni Amatller commissioned architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch to build him a house on the famous “Block of Discord”—it’s the one next to Gaudí’s Casa Batlló.

But let’s get back to the good stuff, and the point of all this: chocolate-drinking establishments. Chocolaterías start springing up in Spain’s big cities at the end of the 18th century, and become important meeting places for intellectuals in the mid 1800s. This is also the period in which people decide it’s necessary to dip something doughy and delicious in the chocolate, driving each region to develop its own specialty. In Madrid, that means churros, fried sticks or loops of batter invented specifically for dunking. Today, churros con chocolate is the quintessential Madrileño breakfast (or post-club energy boost).

Barcelona has chocolaterías as well, but more interesting are the granjas, or milk bars, which spring up at the end of the 19th century. Who cares about dairy products when we’re talking about chocolate? Well, when your hot chocolate comes under a mountain of thick, unsweetened, freshly-whipped cream, you care. Barcelonians call this a “suís” (“suizo” in Spanish) and it’s amazing. Since churros are very un-Catalan, I like to eat mine with an ensaimada, a light and airy pastry snail, though many people would maintain that melindros (Catalan lady fingers) are more authentic.

And what about Bayonne? Well, rather than the dark, almost pudding-like Spanish hot chocolate, they whip up a super-frothy cup of the stuff, call it chocolat mousseux, and serve it with buttered toast. It may not be as thick, but it’s just as delicious—and all that butter doesn’t hurt either. 😉

If you’re traveling around Iberia and want to know which are my favorite chocolaterías in Madrid, Bayonne, and Barcelona, head over to theViatrix for my list of hot chocolate spots.

August 29, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Madrid, Spain, Traditions, Video

Every year, I’m drawn back to good old San Sebastián de los Reyes for another round of watching drunken teenagers narrowly escape angry bulls. Somehow, as I hide my face behind my hands, I can’t resist the urge to peek through my fingers and watch the train wreck of an event that is the second largest running of the bulls in Spain. But rather than tell you about it, here is some footage from yesterday’s run along with a few pictures.


plaza de toros, san sebastian de los reyes, running of the bulls, encierros
charging bull, encierros, san sebastian de los reyes, plaza de toros
bull fighting, dodging bull, san sebastian de los reyes
bull fighting, encierros, plaza de toros, san sebastian de los reyes