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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Santiago de Compostela: Spain Ain't Just Madrid

Travel northwest from Madrid, about an hour by Iberian Airlines, and you’ll find the wonderful stone city of Santiago de Compostela, an epicenter of Catholicism, and most famous for the tired and hungry pilgrims who trek for days, weeks, or months to reach the city’s famous cathedral, approximating the route the apostle, Saint James took.

The city gets its name from Saint James, with James being a derivative of the Hebrew Jacob, by way of the long ago Spanish pronunciation of Iago or Yago.  But to get back to the story, the bones of Saint James the Greater, brother of Saint John, were found by a shepherd boy while tending his flock…this story has a familiar ring and it gets better.  A star led the shepherd back to the city, where the boy gave the bones to the bishop.  This happened about 813, when genetics and DNA sampling were less common than virgin births.  Anyway, the bishop pronounced the bones authentic, which settled the question.  The Vatican remains silent on the subject. Over the centuries miracles followed and it soon became popular to make pilgrimages (frequently call The Way of Saint James) to the city .  Hotels, hostels, inns, and boisterous drinking establishments abounded to house, feed, and slake the thirst of the faithful.

Today, pilgrim or not, Santiago is a wonderful city to visit, with its winding, cobbled streets, sidewalk cafés and eateries providing an abundance of seafood and huge charcoal grilled steaks.  The citizens are very friendly and helpful, the wine is delicious and Catholic or not (many of the pilgrims are not) the old city is a feast for the senses.  In the spring and summer, flowers bloom from pots in every doorway and on every balcony.  If you are accustomed to the burnt brown country of central Spain, you’ll feel as if you stepped into a green paradise of rolling hills, overflowing with a deep green blanket of never ending forests, This is the region of Galicia, of which Santiago is the capitol.

But, let’s step back a moment and talk about Spain.  Spain is an almost universally Catholic country.  Los Reyes Catholicos, Ferdinand and Isabella, are revered.   Before the Catholic kings, Moslems ruled much of the Iberian Peninsula.  Ferdinand and Isabelle, chased them out.  They also chased out the Jews, although the Jews never ruled anything except the Holy Land.  Now the Moslems are trying to chase them out of even that small dot of territory.

We humans seem to always be either chased or chasing. The same year the Jews were chased out of Spain, 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella bankrolled Christopher Columbus for his voyage across the ocean, which eventually led to more chasing.  But, that’s a different story on another continent.

Outdoor cafe at the Parador

Let’s wander through Santiago, while I tell you what I enjoyed.  Not only good wine, but great wine!  Fabulous whites.  For a refreshing stop, I recommend the outdoor parlor beside the Parador.  While you sip your libation, you’ll be overlooking the main square, alive with activity. Joggers, trails of arriving pilgrims, hawkers, the flow of humanity.

A word about the Parador system.  Back in the late 1920s, the Spanish government purchased many old monasteries, castles and other ancient buildings of note to turn them into luxurious hotels, where Spaniards and tourists alike can relax and dine in the cool comfort of stone walls and antique furnishings.  
Dining room at the Parador

Be sure to savor a meal under the curved stone ceiling of the parador’s dining room.  You’ll feast like royalty, with service to match.  Don’t worry that among other things, the building was once a hospital for pilgrims and the dining room was once the morgue.

By all means visit the cathedral and wander the warren of narrow streets, the perfect place to order a drink, nosh on tapas, and order some perfectly prepared fish and shellfish.  Myself, I favor crisply tender fried calamari, with just salt and a squeeze of fresh lemon.

Shrimp in garlic oil

And speaking of seafood and such, the city’s central market is a place of wonder.  Every local culinary delight is on view, from fresh ocean fare to vegetables that burst with flavor.  It’s a happy place to visit once or twice, or in my case, four times in a five-day period.

Tarte de Santiago

Santiago’s famous dessert, Tarte de Santiago, is available and best when savoring some rich Galician coffee.  But, where do you find the best Tarte de Santiago?  Easy, but not so easy.  Near the market is a Monastery where the nuns bake it daily.  Finding this nunnery is another matter.  No signs.  You could walk right past.  I know this, because I did.  Finally, I went back to the market twice to get directions, until a kind woman from one of the stalls said, “Follow me!”  She led me up the stairs and around the corner.  Voila!  Wrong door.  But gallantly and swearing not to go back to the market a third time, I waited and followed another customer to yet another door in the same building.  Still no sign or indication, but he knew where he was going.  At my heels, several nuns followed me in.

You go to a window and ring a bell.  A nun in habit appears.  She smiles.  You give her your order of large or small size.  She disappears and reappears.  You pay only a few Euros and walk away proud and happy.

So, how was the Tarte de Santiago?  Delicious!  Stunning!  Well worth treading the cobblestones.

Band concert outside the cathedral 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Few Days in Madrid

Sometimes the beauty of Madrid is higher up.

Nice Knockers 
The doors aren't bad either.
Ok, lesson number 1.  You’re not going to see all of Madrid in a few days. Put a cap on that bottle right now.  Matter of fact, you can live there a few years and only get a tasty swallow of this wonderful city.

Lesson number 2. Shrug off the shame of well-traveled friends asking if you saw (fill in the blank) or ate at (fill in another blank).  There are thousands of restaurants and thousands of things to see and do in Madrid and you missed their favorites???

Seeing a big Spanish city in a few days is like becoming fluent in Castilian in a few days.  So, relax.  Ain’t gonna happen.

Let me be bold and arrogant enough to suggest how you can make your few days memorable.  Madrid has a wonderful Metro system, and an equally fantastic bus system.  Whenever possible, don’t use them.  Walk.  Feast on the sounds of the city, the serendipity of seeing a sidewalk café and stopping for a leisurely wine or beer, or coffee, or cola.  Strike up a conversation with the natives, many of whom speak at least a smattering of Anglo.  Get off the main streets. Smile a lot.

Did you miss the post on Tascas in Madrid?  One click will fill in the gaps.

“So, that’s wonderful,” I hear you saying, with a great deal of righteous indignation.  “I’m only here a few days and I’m wasting them drinking beer?”

You have a point. Ok, let’s pick out some destinations, some aiming points. You can eat and drink along the way.  Of course, there’s the world famous El Prado art museum and down the street is the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía that houses one of the most famous paintings of the 20th Century, Picasso’s Guernica.   By the way, it’s pronounced Gar (as in Gary)-KNEE-ka.  As you probably know, Guernica is Pablo Picasso’s raw, emotional portrait of the horror that is war, in this case inflicted by Germany and Italy during the Spanish Civil War.  However, it’s good to keep in mind two things.  The first is that Picasso did not paint the town itself, but the emotional representation of having the town bombed.  Secondly, in any civil war, there’s always enough cruelty around for both sides to have a heaping share. 

Besides the painting itself, the museum displays all the preliminary sketches and partial paintings the artist did as he found his way toward the finished masterpiece.

Another tidbit.  He didn’t think this was his greatest painting.  What was?  Surely you don’t expect me to give you the answer and spoil the fun.

So, anyway, you’ve gotten your fill of Goya and Velazquez and so much more in the Prado.  On your stroll to Guernica, please stop right before you get there and have a cooling drink in a little hole in the wall restaurant right next door to Queen Sofia’s Art Central.  Take it from me, even when you’re right on top of the museum, you’ll need to stop and ask directions.  This garden of delight is the perfect spot to do it.  Looks like just a gate in a high wall.   Instead, you’ll find a paradise of tranquility so beguiling you’ll end up spending an hour.

One final note about El Prado.  Don’t rush.  Remember so many of those paintings from your art history class are right here and they’re more vibrantly powerful in person.  You can rent an audio guide that explains each painting.  Lots of ushers around to point you in the direction of your favorites.
Plaza Mayor
Another major destination:  Plaza Mayor.  Only need to remember a few things.  Lots of Toscas and memorable restaurants in and surrounding the Plaza.  That big man on a horse near the center is Philip III, the king who did most of the planning and building of this wondrous plaza.  Overlooking the rectangular plaza are four sides of apartments and shops. The center is strewn with sidewalk cafés,  in great contrast to the autos-da-fé, which took place here in the 16th Century.  If you’re not aware of what an auto-da-fé is, I’ll give you a clue.  It’s wasn't beef and pork the inquisitors of the Spanish Inquisition were roasting.
Inside Casa Paco
I mentioned notable restaurants.  Casa Paco for perhaps the best steaks in the world.  Served on plates heated to almost 1300ºF (700ºC), the meat is gorgeously roasted on the outside and raw in the middle.  Just slice it as thin as you’d like and let the super-heated plates cook it to your taste.

Don't miss the Fabada Soup

Line in front of Botin's

Roast Suckling Pig

Or try the world famous Botin’s, founded in 1725 and made world famous by Ernest Hemingway.  Guinness Book of World Records lists Botin's as the world's oldest restaurant. Gotta have some Conchinillo Asado, roast suckling pig.  Crunchy skin and meat that’s fork tender.

If you’re in town on Sunday, make a trip to El Rastro, Madrid’s famous flea market.  You’ll find everything from expensive antiques, to interesting and affordable objet d’art.  There are also streets lined with stands selling cheap clothes and jewelry.  By-pass those.  Look to the side streets for the treasures.

While you’re at the Rastro, with luck you’ll find a spot for chocolaté y churros.  You may have eaten churros, those crispy cylinders of fired dough, but I’ll wager you haven’t tried cups of Spanish hot chocolate.  It’s so thick and rich it’s almost like pudding.  Go ahead and dip your churros in.  Everybody does.

Never seen a flamenco performance?  An evening in Madrid is the time and place. Fabulous costumes, lots of finger snapping, clacking of heels, and intricately beautiful guitar strumming.

Another Plaza or two.  La Puerta del Sol is just a couple of blocks from Plaza Mayor.  It’s where you’ll find the statue that’s the symbol of Madrid, La Oso y El Madrono, the bear and the strawberry tree.  And never forget La Plaza Santa Ana for wonderful tapas and only a couple of blocks away from La Puerta del Sol.
Gambas al Ajillo

Pimientas de Padron.

Royal Palace

View from Café Oriente

Of course you’ll want to visit the Royal Palace in La Plaza Oriente.  While you’re there, look for Café Oriente across the tree-lined plaza and with a beautiful view of the palace.  Take a break.  Have a wine.

Already you’ve used up your few days.  Really?  It’s over so fast?  Hey, time to put another visit on your calendar.  I’ll drink to that!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Dazzle Me with An Evening of Tapas in Madrid

A tinto in one of my favorites, Casa Paco

As my loyal readers (both of you) probably realize, I haven’t written in a while.  I know you’ve scratched your heads and tossed through sleepless nights, but there’s no need to worry.  I’ve been traveling and one of the places I traveled was to a small village of a few million people, nestled in the beating heart of Spain.  Everybody’s  heard about Madrid, the capitol of Spain.  Bullfights, flamenco dancing, Hola! and buenas dias.  Yes, but how about cuisine and quaint customs?

Spanish cuisine is not close to Mexican, or Peruvian, or Argentinian.  Nor is it close to German, or French, or Italian.  But rather than dwell on the broad spectrum, let’s concentrate on one little word you’ve probably heard before: tapas.  Yeah, I know, so-called tapas are so au current they’re served in mall-restaurants all over the U.S.  But, let me tell you, those are not the same tapas you’ll eat in Spain.

 Tapas are to Spain what hors d’oeuvres are to France, an endless variety of little tasty tidbits to accompany an afternoon slosh of beer or wine.  While you swap lies with friends, at a tiny table in an outdoor café, tapas help you keep your strength up.   You order a beverage and the cheery waiter brings you a small dish without you even asking.  Slices of chorizo, or cheese, some olives, or potato chips, a small slice of Spanish tortilla, or even some boiled shrimp.  Then there are more elaborate creations of fish and meat and vegetables, some made into pastes and others more recognizable.

Did I say "waiter" instead of "serving-person-who-could-be-either-sex"?  Yes, I did.  In Spanish drinking establishments, the servers are more than 90% men. I arrived at that statistic after hours and hours of careful research.

Time to stop for a moment and reflect on cuisine and culture.  In Spain, prime dinnertime is 10:30 at night.  Spaniards start off the day with a coffee and perhaps a pastry between 9 and 10 in the morning, often in the same bar they drank in the night before.  Then there’s a break for wine about 11.  Siesta arrives about 1 p.m. and lasts until 3.  Small shops close, and the back streets of Madrid, which are lined with small shops, look almost deserted.  Siesta is more than lunch and a nap.  It’s family time.  Important time.

All of this means when you eat lunch about 2 p.m. and wait until 10:30 p.m. for your next meal, something’s gotta give, which brings us back to tapas.

Tapa time is around 6 p.m. until 8.  You gather …. Wait a sec, where do you gather?  Ok, time for another digression:  Bars are not generally called bars in Spain, they’re called tascas.  Not hard to remember.  You eat tapas in a tasca.  Often you drink and nosh, then move on for another drink.  We call that tasca-hopping.  And in the morning, as I mentioned, they serve coffee and pastries.  So when a youngster tells his teacher, “My momma drops me off at the bus stop and goes to the bar,” he’s not spilling family secrets. it’s a grand idea, as a matter of fact, I…anyway…

Quick Spanish lesson.  Want a draft beer?  Ask for una caña.  How ‘bout a red wine?  Tinto.  White?  Blanco.  All come in a small size.
Tortilla Español
 A couple of paragraphs ago, I mentioned Spanish Tortilla.  So, what’s the diff?  A Mexican tortilla is thin and flat, made from corn, or wheat flour, while a Spanish tortilla is a thick, round omelet, with a filling of sliced potatoes, and large enough to share with a group of your favorite inebriates. Spanish tortillas are often served at room temp.

Now that you’ve got the rules and the lingo down, I’m looking at my watch and think it’s time to don those dark glasses, open the top button on the shirt, roll up the sleeves and hit the streets.  You need a little money, but not too much.  Uno tinto, or una caña will cost you about 1 to 3 Euros, and remember those little plates of tapa are usually free.  Oh, yeah, put that dazzling smile on your face! An evening of tapas in Madrid awaits! 

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