May 19, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Madrid, Spain, Travel, Travels in Spain

When I think of Chinchón, I think of the first time I met my husband’s sisters. Over four years ago, and on my second trip to visit Jacobo in Spain, we headed out to the pueblo with my future sisters-in-law for a lunch party. I was sporting an empire-waist dress I had gotten from Zara, thinking that my Spanish ensemble would help me to fit in. But then, as I sipped (chugged) my wine, some old doctor lady came up to me to say that I shouldn’t be drinking while pregnant. Say what?!? I may like my chocolate and tortilla española, but pregnant? Come on – not even close! Needless to say, I’ve never bought empire-waist anything since.

So perhaps that’s not what you wanted to know about Chinchón, but it’s virtually all that comes to mind when I think of the place (followed by laughter, and then perhaps forced reassurance from Jacobo that I in fact don’t look pregnant). Indeed there’s more to the pueblo than just this. Spanish-ness oozes from every crevice of the teeny town – from its picturesque plaza, to its crumbling castle, and the church that overlooks the village and its olive orchards. Only about 40 minutes southeast of Madrid, it’s the perfect place to have lunch, then go for a stroll (and pick up local pastries – obviously). And so last weekend, that’s just what we did.

Here are a few pictures from our mini-viaje:

“Donkey taxis,” which I desperately wanted to ride. Too bad I was wearing a dress (again) and didn’t want to scare the little kiddies.

The Plaza Mayor, which dates back to the 15th century, has been used for a variety of purposes over the course of time, some of which include: royal events, executions, a movie set, and a bull ring (which they still do to this day).

My husband and my apparently pregnant-looking self.

I also wanted to ride this bull, but again, the dress.

In conclusion, there’s something about dresses and Chinchón that really don’t go well together – am I right?

To see a few more pictures from the excursion, please visit the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page.

April 26, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Madrid, Spain

Exhibit A

Spanish fans, stinky cheeses, fanny packs (see exhibit A), fresh fruit, wine by the glass and of course antiques. Madrid’s markets have something for everyone – and a market for everyone. Not all markets here are created equally, however, so here’s a run down of the different kinds that you will find in the Spanish capital. Grab your wallets (but watch them closely, people – this is Spain!) – let’s go shopping!

The Rastro
Madrid’s most famous market, and supposedly the largest in Europe, takes place every Sunday in the rowdy La Latina barrio. Starting around 9am, people and up to 3500 stalls fill the narrow, winding streets of Madrid’s oldest neighborhood. Think big flea market, not farmers market.

El Rastro is the place to find clothes, antiques, trinkets – you know, all that junk you might want to take home to your family as a souvenir. My personal favorite: the scarves. For 2-3 euros you can find light-weight scarves (called fulares) that are great to use year round. And since it’s located in La Latina – a hot spot for Sunday tapas hopping – it’s a great place to grab a caña (small glass of beer) afterward.

Madrid farmers(ish) markets
Not in the market for useless stuff (hehe, no pun intended!) – eh hem – finely crafted artisanal goods? No problem – there’s another market for you. In many of Spain’s larger cities, one massive indoor market serves as the city’s go-to place for fresh foods. In Madrid, however, several smaller (and some not so small) markets lie scattered throughout the center. These mercados are essentially a hybrid between grocery stores and farmers markets (a “permanent farmers market,” as my friend Heather calls them).

Separate stalls fill the closed space, each specializing in a variety of different goods from produce, to meat and fish, and even the occasional tapas bar for the hungry shopper. While tourists might not find much to buy (perhaps some cheese? or maybe olive oil?), passing through will certainly entertain. The gaping mouths and piercing eyes of fish stare back at you from atop blankets of ice. And brightly-colored produce is arranged artfully, putting that Whole Foods display that you’re used to to shame. One pass through a Madrid market will tell you volumes about Spanish cuisine. And also potentially make or break your appetite.

El Mercado de San Miguel
Hidden behind Plaza Mayor, El Mercado de San Miguel sits inside a small glass-encased building, appearing to be a mini version of some of Spain’s larger and more famous indoor markets (like those found in Valencia or Barcelona). As mentioned above, many big cities have a primary central market, typically housed in an antiquated, picturesque building that spans several blocks. Since Madrid is full of markets spread throughout the city, no single one serves as its primary (much less pretty) market. It does, however, have El Mercado de San Miguel.

The structure was originally built in 1916, and was renovated and reopened in 2009. Today’s mercado gives the tourist a taste of the other less fancy, but more functional markets described above. You will still get to see a stall or two overflowing with vibrantly-colored produce, and other stalls with fish you never knew even existed. But let’s be honest, that’s not why you came to Spain – a few stalls later you can have a glass of wine, enjoy a plate of cheese, and even take your pick from a vast selection of croqueta flavors. There’s a little something for everyone (and by everyone, I mean a lot of tourists).

I may miss my Whole Foods (painfully), and the outdoor farmers markets (what does a girl have to do to get a cantaloupe?), but in the end, I think I’ve got more than enough market action to keep me happy. Now if only I could say the same about things like sushi and guacamole.

*This post is a part of the Lonely Planet BlogSherpa carnival, hosted by Indian Bazaars, featuring marketplaces around the world. You can also read the blog carnival that I hosted on unique customs.

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!

April 15, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Madrid, Spain, Travel, Travels in Spain

Yesterday, I found myself surrounded once again by the congregation of kitties that infest the village of Patones de Arriba. Around every turn, you will see them hiding inside a dilapidated building, beneath the overgrown thicket, or peeking at you from the top of a crumbling wall. While I’ve seen my fair share of pussycat-infested pueblos, this one certainly takes the prize.

The miniature town of Patones de Arriba cozily nests in a mountainside crevice near the northern border of the community of Madrid. It’s a slate wonderland filled with slate roads, slate houses, and, well, cats, all which perch on layers of flakey rock that jet out from the earth.

The size of the village surely wouldn’t take up more than just a few Madrid city blocks, and its peculiar placement doesn’t make for the most modern of lifestyles. As a result, most of its inhabitants (kitties excluded) have relocated to the newer (and unfortunately far less charming) city on the valley floor, aptly named Patones de Abajo (Lower Patones).

Despite not being the most ideal of homes, Patones de Arriba (Upper Patones) makes for a mighty fine getaway – for Madrileños, in particular. Only about 45 minutes north of the city, and so entirely different than any other place you’ll find in Spain, it’s just the place to go for a heavy dose of fresh air and an equally heavy lunch. However, don’t expect to see many people there, and certainly not many foreigners. So few, in fact, that yesterday the bartender at El Rincón de Patones knew just who I was. “You’ve come here before, haven’t you?” she asked. Once again, my American-ness had no one fooled.

Like the amount of cats in this town, the number of times I’ve visited Patones is countless. And no trip ever feels the same. On scorching summer days, the hillsides are crispy and dry with shrubbery, and the slate sizzling like a skillet from the unforgiving Spanish sun. When fall arrives, the fresh colors of seasons past transform into shades of amber, ruby and gold. During winter, the pueblo’s ethereal quality will give you chills as its stone walls of grey, brown and rust, sweat dew from the moisture of hovering fog. And then, on a spring (primavera in Spanish) day like yesterday, the city comes alive with tangles of green vines, fragrant blossoms, and the buzz of insects elated by the nectar of a new year (and me not so elated by the bugs).

Just as the seasons change, so does the crowd. Some days the pueblo brims with Spaniards enjoying a day out of the city to fulfill their craving for mouth-watering cordero lechal (lamb fed only milk, which, my father proclaimed as one of his top five favorite meals EVER). On other days, like yesterday apparently, you will only find me, a couple of friends and some guys donning old school military uniforms while filming a movie about deep Spain. (We are hopeful that if you look closely in the final film, you might just see three Americans swatting at flies in the background.)

Then, occasionally, there are days when there’s not a soul around. Except for the cats – herds of cats – frolicking, napping and playing in their own private slate playground.

March 2, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Madrid, Spain

Recently, I’ve met a slew of new American expats, both firmly and not so firmly planting their feet in Spain’s red soil. Like myself, many move here hoping for adventure, others arrive following romance, and, almost always, everyone dreams of speaking the Spanish language overnight. But then, reality hits, and suddenly you’re in a foreign country, adapting to an odd food schedule, bizarrely inefficient processes, and smoky bars (wait, no, NOT smoky bars as of January 2nd of this year! Just had to rejoice in declaring that news again). The first months and even years are full of growing pains. You often don’t feel you belong, you feel like you will quite simply never speak the language, and you begin to miss good sushi with every ounce of your being.

And then, you remember that you are in SPAIN. Every day, for the last three years, I kid you not, I remain grateful that I’m here. Through the blunders, kleenex and curses, I try to remind myself of my favorite things (and we’re not just talking raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens here). And, sure enough, with time my favorite things have begun to heavily outweigh my “unfavorite” things.

So, when the Spanish dog bites, and the madrileña bee stings, here is the list of fantastically Iberian things that keep me singing the country’s praises.

The food. Period.

Duh. Really, do we even need to go over this? If I weren’t married, and could marry a physical object, it would be the tortilla española. And not just any tortilla, but rather my mother-in-law’s tortilla. Yes, it’s that darn good. It transports me to food heaven – furniture starts to look like bars of chocolate, people look like gingerbread men, and my beloved tortilla is the center of my universe. Joining this food love affair, as I’m sure you all know, is manchego cheese, jamón, croquetas and even pulpo (octopus). Spain, dear Spain, my life wouldn’t be complete without these delicacies.

The people

While waiters may not be the warmest of folks (they don’t really get paid tips – you’d be bitter too, right?), rest assured that most any given stranger will go above and beyond to help you. Three years of living here and I’m still blown away by the fact that when I ask for directions, people often either walk with me to my destination or even drive me there (remember the fellow with the mystery zucchini?). I remain in awe of the over the top hospitality I receive when visiting an acquaintance’s home. And then I’m just plain comforted by the simple way a group of people I hardly know always makes me feel like I’m part of the club. In fact, when my father visited Spain for the first time last summer (for that trivial little event of ours), he felt so welcomed and embraced by the culture that it has literally taken him months to stop marveling over Spanish hospitality.

Rhythm of life

What rhythm? You don’t hear it? I hardly do either, and that’s because the rhythm is ever so faint. If the US were a fire hydrant, Spain would be a rusty faucet slowlllyyyy dripping water. At first, this drove me mad, MAD I tell you. Why doesn’t the line go faster? Why is EVERYTHING closed on Sunday? And why isn’t anything open between 2:00pm and 5:00pm!??? But then, my rhythm slowed too, and gradually, with the surprise of frustrating idiosyncrasies having worn off, I now no longer get fussy. Here, people live in the moment, and that’s OK – they take time (LOTS of time) to have the most basic of lunches, they walk slowly through the city streets, they always pick up their phones to chat with a friend. Sometimes it can be positively aggravating, but now, more than anything, it makes me a better person because I’m able to enjoy life more fully (that’s what I tell myself anyway).

Car lifestyle

Yes, I’m following the heartfelt bit about me being a better person, with my perspective on car lifestyle. Sounds shallow, but hear me out. In Spain, people pretty much don’t car about their cars. Bump, ding, scratch, scrape, dent – no pasa nada. Double-park for an hour? Sure, why not. Park over a crosswalk? Meh, go for it. This probably sounds like the makings of chaos, but for me, not so! For every time I’ve been blocked in a parking spot by a double-parked car, I’ve probably conveniently gotten 50 things done by being able to do the same myself. Meanwhile, when I get a scratch on my own car, I laugh and chalk it up as another fabulous battle scar. I guess I just never realized how liberating driving could be until experiencing the stress-free disorder of the Spanish roads. Again, it’s all about living in the moment. Who gives a flying tortilla about my silly car?

The Metro

Seriously, the Metro is Dios‘s gift to Madrid (just as the tortilla is to my food universe). What a magnificent system it is – and I can say this too as I’ve seen a metro/subway or two in my day. New York, London, Tokyo – all just child’s play, really. The Metro, in all its glorious efficiency, can take you virtually anywhere in Madrid for a euro (sometimes more if you leave the city limits). Everything is immaculate, clearly marked in Spanish and English, and bedecked in colors and numbers so that you never get confused. I love my car (to the extent that I don’t care at all what happens to it), but my life could easily go on without it given this city’s spectacular transportation.

There you have it. My favorite things about Spain. I would advise that you keep this list handy in case you too get blue, but I realize that might be counterproductive if you don’t actually live here. Instead, I prescribe a trip to the España ASAP! I’ll treat ya to some tortilla while driving you around wildly on the Spanish streets and talking on my cell phone with a friend. You’ll feel right at home, I promise.