Thursday, September 6, 2012

Travels and Tastes of Spain ( Part 1)


Where to start? Well, 2 babies crying for 7 hrs straight on the plane, maybe a good start.  This made sure that we got to Madrid with only about 2 hrs of sleep between the 4 of us and a lot of ground to cover.  True to our families’ nature we decided that walking the whole old city of Madrid in one day would be a good idea.  We just didn’t count on one thing -  Damn, it is hot in Spain.  And not the “oh, it summer, the sun is shining “ kind of hot, it is like the afternoon sun is scorching through your brain leaving the rest of your body dehydrated and bloated and unable to take a single step.  The shady side of the street provides marginal relief but it does not really make much difference.

After checking out the main Cathedral and the Royal Palace we walked all the way back to Plaza del Sol taking the old city and narrow cobble stone streets around Plaza Mayor.  We sort of stumbled (via the carefully planned route) onto a wonderful Merkato de San Maguel, which provided the first glances into the world of Spanish cuisine. 

Tiny bytes of anchovies and olives, perfect bytes of fresh cheese and tomatoes, glances upon hanging Iberico hams and the sight of the most beautiful fresh sea food, offered just the right amount of mouthwatering anticipation. 

the selection of olives was stuggering

Ceviche so fresh it is almost swimming away

Fresh cheese, similar to mozarella but creamier and with a bit of a tang

But it will be a while before we get to eat anything. First we walk, and we walk and we walk… we bake under the 4 p.m. sun, and then we walk some more…  After hours of wondering and trying to ignore the heat, the hunger and exhaustion, we ended up shopping for a new back yard look at the Royal Palace gardens, and here I made the worst of mistakes, I give up the guide book and the map.  For the first time in my life I was too tired to read the map or care where and how we are going.  After numerous amounts coffee, water and wine , all I wanted was a nice nap on any of the green lawns we are passing.  This new city, the sights, no longer interesting, I can only think of my unbending swollen fingers and closing eyes.  I relinquished the map, to my son, who I was hoping, inherited the navigation gene from my side of the family, and who, I was hoping will lead us to food and shelter or at least out of non-ending god damn, royal gardens…. Let’s just say that the only navigator in this family remains to be me…  We did make it out eventually and stopped off for a snack at the most touristy destination imaginable at a café in Plaza Mayor.   Normally I would try and stay away from such places, on the very beaten path, catering to tourists, usually serving crap at most premium price, but we were exhausted, and one thing I learned from traveling with my kids, it is better to just give up and eat anywhere.  There will be plenty of opportunities to look for a perfect meal later.  Well, I was pleasantly surprised; we ended up tasting one of the best prepared octopus dishes we would taste through the whole trip.  Simply sautéed in butter and olive oil, with just salt and pepper, and a bit of smoked sweet paprika, the octopus was prepared perfectly, soft, not chewy; it almost melted in your mouth.  Washed down with a nice bottle of Spanish white, for a price less than a glass in Manhattan, and things were looking up. 

Sauted octopus with Papprika

There is a great vibe to Madrid, with locals and tourists alike partying in the streets, drinking, eating, and small winding streets littered with outdoor cafes and restaurants.  We saw none of this the first night, by nine in the evening Madrid has won over our bodies and we were fast asleep.

Madrid has won!

The next morning disaster struck, in my tired haze of previous day, as I gave up the guide book to the men in my family, and they managed to lose all of the research I have done for the entire trip.  There were a whole bunch of papers tucked into the pages of the book, outlining what to see and when, in each city, complete with siesta times for all the sites, train schedules and much more.  I spent months on that research and it was now gone, dropped somewhere between Plaza Mayor and god knows where.  On top of that we were practically cut off from civilization as the internet on our phone was not working and hotel wi-fi was going in and out.  I was furious, upset and feeling very cutoff from all my points of reference.  Traveling with just a book like we did for ages, seemed obsolete.  After a few hours I reluctantly agreed to continue with the trip and deal with my I-Phone dependency in private, so we boarded a train to Toledo.  I guess I will just have to travel the old-fashioned way.


Toledo becomes breathtaking as you are hiking up the hill toward the city walls and see the old world magnificent gates to the city.  It continues to mesmerize you as you get lost around the narrow winding streets and passages.  Once you get over the bad quality of the map they give you at the train station, you surrender yourself to the flow of the alleys and eventually end up at one of the biggest and most beautiful cathedrals in Europe.  Stroll around the Jewish quarter, visit numerous sword shops and begin looking for a snack and a break from the heat. 

Tiny winding streets of Toledo

As we were taking in the sites in the morning I spotted a charming looking place with a great tapas menu in one of the plazas, but when it came time to find it, we just could not.  We circled around the same area, stumbling on a sleeping basset hound at least five times, but kept ending up at the wrong plaza.  It was like the place was cursed and the woman steering tourists toward a plaza Mayor Eatery was a witch.  Again, we gave into the food fate and just sat down.  After some interesting interactions in Spanish and trying to decipher a menu from which I only understood some general terms we ordered.  Boy, do these Spaniards know their food!  We were served an Iberico pork chop, cooked medium rare, which tasted like haven and melted in my mouth.  It was pure, succulent porkiness at its best and I again marveled at how simply it was prepared.  Spanish white wine from the north regions was beautiful and crisp, and I was sad that in the US we hardly have any Spanish whites.

This cutie was just sleeping in the street.  He bacame less cute with each exausted circle we made ending up at the same place

An unforgettable pork chop

All in all, Toledo was a so far a highlight, as Madrid was not as inspiring as we hoped, the city has a few neighborhoods which can be enjoyed, especially around the museum part of town, but overall it is dirty, laden with beggars and lacking a unique charm.   Since we had one more night in Madrid, we were hoping to find a more charming part of town than what we saw so far, so we headed back anxious to finally eat a celebrated tapas dinner.  We ended up in a small place on a busy restaurant street frequented by locals and finally, finally, got to experience true tapas…. Huge grilled prawns, which squirt juice everywhere as you peel them, grilled Padrone peppers,  toasts laden with tomatoes and ham, grilled tomatoes oozing with caramelized goat cheese , boudin noir ( blood sausage),and a nice bottle of red all for the price of a couple of drinks back home….  Churros dipped into hot chocolate with coffee toped with frozen custard to finish the day and we were ready to move on to Seville.

Grilled King Prawns as sweet as butter and probably the messiest food on the planet
I was looking forward to seeing the Spanish country side, being that Spain is a fruit basket of Europe, I expected to see lush fields, orange groves and lots of charming little farms.  All we saw were olive trees, millions of them, occupying every foot of land stretching to the horizon.  Rocky, burned out soil and olive trees.  Nothing else, just dusty, grayish olive trees.   For all these olives you would think that olive oil would be sold on each corner, but to my surprise we only saw one tiny shop in Seville and just a few places in Granada selling it. 

Seville greeted us with smoldering heat and a town of ghosts….
To be continued....

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

shit I wana go there!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! go on, continue please...........