Autonomous Community Spotlight: Castilla-La Mancha

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain. 

At the risk of breaking my engagement, Castilla-La Mancha only conjures up one thing to me: Don Quijote de la Mancha, the star-crossed lover and would-be knight who is synonymous with Spanish culture. While I can admire Don Alonso’s attempt to bring back chivalry in the early 17th Century, the very thought of him reminds me of high school Spanish class and having to make a video of our own quijote-like adventures (we attacked the rickety jungle gym in my back yard with a stick and made up a parody to a Backstreet Boys song, in case you were wondering).

The expansive region east and southeast of Madrid has quite a few claims to fame besides Quijote and his sidekick Sancho Panza, and the ‘giants’ he fought at Consuegra. I’ve admittedly only been to Toledo for two days, and spent two weeks living in the Monasterio de Uclés, but my hunch is that the medieval architecture, the sunflower fields and the Manchego cheese (yep, it’s from La Mancha, bendito sea) would win me over.

Name: Castilla-La Mancha

Population: 2.1 million

 

Provinces: Five; Albacete, Ciudad Real, Cuenca, Guadalajara, Toledo.

When: September 2007, 8th of 17

About Castilla-La Mancha: “Shifting Borders Since 711″ could be the unofficial tourism slogan of this area of Spain. Once part of the the Muslim caliphate in the early 8th century, Christian crusaders slowly fought back and the whole region was eventually unified under the Catholic Crown in that infamous year, 1492. 

During those centuries, the region became known as Castilla la Nueva, a shout out to its cousin, the Kingdom of Castille. This area actually included Madrid, then a small farming village, and its capital was named as Toledo. Under the Catholic Kings, New Castille regained its Christian heritage, giving way for Cervantes to pen sweeping ideas in his famous novel.

In the late 18th century, José Moniño, Count of Floridablanca, redrew county lines, so to speak, creating several comarcas and making Albacete a region of Murcia. It was not until the creation of Autonomous Regions with the 1978 Constitution that Albacete returned home to Castilla-La Mancha, and is now its largest city.

Despite being one of the largest territorial regions, Castilla-La Mancha is sparsely populated (I lived in Uclés, population: 220, for two weeks. We were lucky to have a place to escape from camp food!). Just take the high-speed train between Madrid and Córdoba for proof.

Wine, olives and livestock thrive on the dry plains, and historically La Mancha has been known for agriculture more than industry.

Must-sees: Castilla-La Mancha is home to one of Spain’s former capitals and a heralded city, Toledo. This UNESCO World Heritage site is known for being the Ciudad de las Tres Culturas, or a haven for religious tolerance before Torquemada and the Inquisition rolled around.

In medieval times, Catholics, Jews and Muslims rubbed elbows in the Plaza del Zocodover, and the artistic and cultural legacy is still present. Famed Spanish painter El Greco made this city his home and his artwork remains preserved in his home and workshop near the Tajo Gorge, and the Alcázar’s historical significance is renowned. If you’re in Madrid, make the trip.

The old school windmills at Consuegra are under an hour’s drive from Toledo, and while they’re no longer used, they have whimsical names of knights.

The famous casa colgantes, or hanging houses, of Cuenca are widely known. Built on the gorge of the River Huécar, they’re the main attraction in a town full of noteworthy monuments, churches and museums. Its historic center is also a UNESCO site. 

And wouldn’t you know? Manchego cheese is largely produced in this region of Spain, as is wine and sunflower oil. So eat, drink and be glad you found out about this region. And try Marzipan, a traditional Christmas sweet that is mass-produced in Toledo.

My take: If you’ve read any other posts on this blog, you’ll know I champion small-town Spain and count food and drink among my favorite things. Toledo is a quick train ride outside of Madrid and an absolute treasure, and you can reach Guadalajara and Cuidad Real in no time. There’s absolutely no reason why you should skip Castilla-La Mancha.

And if you want a Quijote fix without traveling too far, there’s always Alcalá de Henares.

Have you ever visited Castilla-La Mancha? 

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León

Love and the Art of Flamenco Guitar Making: A Visit to the Guitarrería Mariano Conde

The sawdust on the floor gave it away: this was actually a living, breathing sort of workshop, not one where the workers are tucked away, out of sight for appearances. My ears perked with each twang of the six strings of a flamenco guitar. There was a few hollow knocks, followed by a bit of sanding.

That’s where the sawdust came from. 

Growing up, I played the clarinet and learned music theory while perfecting trills, scales and my embouchure. Upon taking a flamenco course in Seville, I discovered that I shared the innate rhythm bailaores possess, the internal metronome that allows them to recognize palos and styles, then spiral into dance. My ears picked up the 2/4 and 3/4 counts and set my feet into motion with a firm golpe using my whole foot.

There are three big parts to flamenco – el cante, or the song; el baile, or dance;  el toque, or the guitar. The guitar is what accompanies  the cante, and sets rhythm to the bailaor. 

To learn about how flamenco guitars are crafted, Tatiana took us to the Mecca of guitarras flamencasGuitarrería Mariano Conde. Tucked away from the Ópera area on Calle de la Amnistía, this workshop has existed since 1915 and is operated by a third-generation craftsman and his son. 

Mariano hardly looked up from his work as he welcomed us into the bi-lever taller. He was sanding down the intoxicating curves of a flamenco guitar, crafted from cyprus and a century-old design. There was a muttered holaaaaa bienvenidas and a quick dos besos for Tatiana as she led us downstairs into the dimly lit belly of the shop. 

The tools of the trade stood against the wall – picks, sanders, measuring sticks, protractors. Nearly two dozen guitars in various stages of development, each showing just a fraction of the work that goes into crafting a lightweight flamenco guitar. In all, about 300 hours of labor go into producing a single instrument.

Mariano descended the stairs, carrying a soundboard over his shoulder. Made of thin strips of cypress or spruce, this part of the guitar provides for the reverberation and the sound that is transmitted when strings get plucked. Once this part of the guitar has been crafted, the sideboards are affixed, followed by the fretboard, or neck.

Just as a painter signs the bottom of a masterpiece, Mariano’s signature comes by way of the carving on the top of each fretboard – his is a minute, gently sloping “M.”

Many of the guitars we saw were in their final stages of production – applying coat after coat of French shellac, drying, or ready for the strings and bridge to be attached. Around the sound hole, Mariano adds another signature of his workshop, one which is solely dedicated to flamenco guitars: the rosette.

Made from carved and dyed pieces of wood, the color and pattern of rosettes changes regularly, and his current design pays homage to the first generation of flamenco guitar craftsmen in his family. The costs begin at 2800€ and rise steadily from there, depending on the wood used and hours of craftsmanship.

Unless, of course, it’s a Sonata.

A list of about 30 names of guitars, named for the poems that accompany the tag, are specially crafted for famous names in flamenco (including the recently deceased flamenco great, Paco de Lucía) and specialty buyers, including musicians who do not perform in the flamenco style. The Sonata guitars are pricey, but done solely by el maestro himself.

Mariano himself was hospitable, answering my questions between teens looking to replace nylon strings and other curious buyers who walked into the shop.

To say the Conde Hermanos, sobrinos de Domingo Esteso, are household names when it comes to flamenco guitars, would be an understatement. I’m not a flamenco aficionado, but can appreciate the discipline and attention it take to perfect an art, be it el cante or el baile or el toque.

The Art of Making, Alma Flamenca from Deep Green Sea on Vimeo.

I visited Guitarrería Mariano Conde as part of the ‘Origins of Flamenco’ tour with OGO Tours. Check out their website for loads more, from food to walking tours to excursions. Javier and Tatiana graciously invited my friend and I free of charge, but all opinions are my own.

If you’re interested in more Madrid and flamenco: My Perfect Madrileño Day | Mercado San Miguel | Where to see flamenco in Seville

Do you like Flamenco?

Tapa Thursdays: Yakitoro, a Chicote-run Dining Concept in Madrid

Faced with a lunchtime dilemma in Madrid, I was thrilled to get a message at the very moment my stomach rumbled from my friend Lauren, a self- and media-professed foodie and an insider in the Spanish capital chow scene (jo, she’s one of the co-founders of Madrid Food tour. When I say expert, I mean it!).

Though we were trying to find a time for a drink, I had to ask: We’re in Chueca. Where do we eat?

Lauren offered up a few choices, but we were closest to Yakitoro, Alberto Chicote’s newest restaurant. Much like Anthony Bourdain or Gordon Ramsey, this madrileño chef is riding a wave of immense popularity after appearances on Spain’s version of Top Chef and Nightmare in the Kitchen, called Pesadilla en la Cocina.

Welp, our minds were made up on that rainy Saturday afternoon – we’d be wannabe foodies and celebrity stalkers. I came into Yakitoro with high expectations and left slightly let down, to be honest.

Let me start with the good stuff:

Concept

Yakitoro is a Japanese-Spanish fusion restaurant (with food reminiscent of Nazca in Seville). The kitchen prep area is behind a large glass wall, and you can imagine my surprise when I saw Chicote himself making the food. The first question we were asked upon sitting down was Chopsticks or a fork?

I’ve been mildly obsessed with concept restaurants since a sixth grade project where we were asked to plan a restaurant, from decor to menu to price to sustainability. Ours? OJ’s Cyber Cafe, where the 1995 trial took center stage in our menu and chalk outlines were the hallmarks. Morbid.

The tapas – an eclectic mix of vegetarian, fish and meat dishes – are then cooked over a fogón, or a large stove, in the middle of the restaurant in plain view. Polished wooden tables spiral out from the central stove, meaning patrons are grouped together, sharing a cooler in the middle with bottles of beer and chilled wine.

We were sat at a low, steel bar next to the window and filled with succulent plants. The servers wear flight suits that reminded me of the Communist theatre I went to in Harbin, China.

Food

There were easily 50 dishes on the menu, glued to wooden boards, and a small but thoughtful wine list. We chose an entire bottle of rosé to detox from copious amounts of tinto during the week and I ordered for Laura.

The sardines in tempura with a sweet chile sauce were up first. Laura was put off by having to peel them, so I dug in. Those that were cooked were exquisite, and the sweet ñora sauce was an excellent touch, though a few of the fish came undercooked.

I’m not a mushroom fan, though Laura raved about the cooked-to-perfection shiitake mushrooms with dried mackerel shavings and a garlic sauce. The smoky taste of the dried mackerel added depth and distracted me from the texture of the mushroom. The portion was rather generous, as well.

The grilled shallots – a signature dish in Catalonia – were browned on the fogón and crowned with tangy romescu sauce, were a nice break between our heavier dishes. They came speared on a brochette, thus the basis of Yakitoro’s menu.

We chose two meat dishes to finish off. The chicken in tempura was delicious, particularly with the thick and sweet Pedro Ximinez reduction for dipping.

The braised short ribs were cooked to order, glazed with a sweet sauce and a perfect ending to the meal. 

The tapas, while small, were an excellent price – from 2,50€ and up – and we ordered an entire bottle of wine and five tapas for well under 40€.

Service

I mistakenly thought that the less-than-desirable service at Yakitoro was due to it being a brand-new venue – pues no, Yakitoro has been open for business since June. When we arrived just after 3pm, the place was packed, so we got our names on a list for an hour later. 

The kitchen didn’t close midday, which is more common in Madrid than in Seville, but the restaurant wasn’t nearly as buzzing when we arrived at 4:30. We were sat right away, though it took nearly ten minutes to get a menu and another ten for our bottle of wine to be opened. Thankfully, we weren’t in a hurry and enjoyed the sobremesa on Laura’s last day in Spain.

As we left nearly 90 minutes later after a long lunch, Chicote was standing at the door and said goodbye. I fibbed a little and told him the sardines were exquisite – they would have been, had they been cooked for a minute longer. Every restaurant has its kinks to work out (haven’t you seen his show?!), so I’d be willing to try Yakitoro in the future.

Yakitoro is located on Calle Reina, 41, just steps off of Gran Vía in the Chueca neighborhood. The kitchen is open daily from 1pm until midnight, and reservation are accepted. You can check out their website for more.

Learning Photography Basics with Sevilla Photo Tour

How many times have you been on a trip and you hand your camera off to someone, only to get this result?

Dude, I put it on auto for you. How could you have messed that up?

I sadly have pictures of myself in some gorgeous places – Beijing, Romania, Morocco – that have turned out less-than-stellar because asking a stranger to take my photo has resulted in a simple click without considering composition, light or even where my body was in the photo.

And then there’s the traveling-and-not-always-knowing-where-to-look factor. At breakneck speed on trips, I often forget to slow down and seek out details in photos, opting instead for macro shots of famous sites and landscapes.

As a professional photographer, Alberto began Sevilla Photo Tour to help visitors to the Andalusian capital discover the city’s most beautiful rincones, have professional photos taken in such rincones and receive a personalized photo album to take home.

We met Alberto in Plaza de América one sunny October morning – not optimal for photos, perhaps, but one of those mornings where it’s pleasant in the sun, chilly in the shade and the blue hue of the sky still fools you into thinking it’s still summer.

Alberto gave us a mini-tour through María Luisa park, a historic part of the city he jokingly calls “el despacho,” or the office. We sat in a shady plaza dedicated to Miguel de Cervantes, Spain’s literary mastermind, which had ceramic bookshelves with a few tattered paperbacks for loan.

Alberto explained the various parts of the manual functions, something I’d toyed with from time to time before settling on automatic settings for sake of time. I was familiar with all of the terms – f-stop, white balance, aperture – but haven’t quite worked out how to make them all fit to get the result my own two eyes did.

Then, he gave us a series of tasks around the park to practice what we had learned. First up was a formidable challenge: freezing the water of a fountain located in the center of the park while allowing the colors of the blue sky and lush gardens come out.

Easier said that snapped, as it took me three tries to get it kind of right!

I’d considered shutter speed for making the water not blur together, but couldn’t get the aperture, or the amount of like that gets let into the lens, and the ISO to work together. Essentially, the lower the ISO, the clearer your pictures are but the less sensitive they are to the light coming into the camera.

Next, I worked on taking a portrait of Laura on a bright day while experimenting with depth of field. Without Alberto’s help, I fumbled through the settings to be sure Laura’s face was in focus and the backdrop of the Museo de Artes y Costumbre’s mudéjar facade a bit blurred, taking into account all of the light that would be in the frame.

Fail. I’d need to work at this.

Once I’d reset and looked for a place with less light, I snapped another picture of my friend with better results:

The pigeons at the western end of the plaza were our next challenge. I’ve long tried to capture them in flight, but had never gotten the shutter speed fast enough to have their wings fully outstretched. But that had an easy fix: shutter speed. I set my shutter as fast as it would snap – 1/3200 of a second – and waited for the birds to fly.

Even when the pigeons weren’t flying, I experimented with depth of field and closing the aperture to focus the photo.

Alberto then led us through the lush gardens of María Luisa, constructed for the 1929 Ibero-American Fair and full of hidden fountains and busts. Apart from tutorials, Sevilla Photo Tour also takes photos of families (which eliminates the more-than-likely chance that you’ll have a photo like the one above of a rooftop rather than the Giralda).

Like any good tour, we ended with a beer and a few tapas before I jetted off to work. Laura spent a good chunk of her afternoon in the park and Plaza de España testing out her photography skills. When I met her at 10pm that night on a ceramic bench in the picturesque half-moon square, I tried to remember what I’d been taught.

Yeah, add a tripod for Camarón to my registry wish list!

Alberto graciously offered Laura and I the tour free of charge, but all opinions are my own. If you’re interested in learning more, get in touch with Sevilla Photo Tour and tell them that I sent you! 

Have you ever been on a photo tour, or any sort of out-of-the-box tour while traveling?

Spain Snapshots: Setenil de las Bodegas (and why I never need to return)

The eternal question I get from my visitors is: Ooooh, where should we go on your days off? I’m not the type of person to sit still on the weekends so long as there is sunshine, half a tank of gas and someone to watch the ever-changing highway signs for me.

Tobes works in the travel industry, so when we went down the list of obvious choices (Granada? Nah, was just there. Portugal? Let’s skip it because of the holiday weekend.) Nothing really stuck out at us.

It was time to get Señor Google involved, and the page rank spoke: Pueblos Blancos.

The white villages, known as pueblos blancos, are a string of whitewashed villages perched on mountains and in valleys in the Cádiz and Málaga provinces. Many, like Ronda and Grazalema, are quite well-known. There are two dozen of them, and I can count the number of them I’ve been to on one hand.

Once she’d recovered from jet lag, we hopped into my car and drove south out-of-town. Once you hit Puerto Serrano, towns begin to pop up in the distance as small white blips on a mountain, reached by snaking roads over hills and through farmland.

In a last-minute decision, we stopped in Ronda for libations and to stretch our legs, and while we could have spent the entire afternoon callejando, I had been intrigued by a village I’d seen on Trover – Setenil de las Bodegas.

Believed to have been around since the Roman times, the river gorge on either side of the Trejo has been exploited for shops and homes that are built into the overhanging rock. The result is something that kind of twists your mind:

Could you imagine going outside to see if it’s raining but come face to face with this rock? 

Tobes and I arrived at the merienda hour, when people were beginning to wake up from a Sunday siesta and head to the streets. The road that leads into town immediately shoots you onto a one-way street that winds through homes and uphill. Seville is as flat as Illinois, so we had several small scares as I tried not to stall or roll down the hill.

I found a parking spot at the highest point in town, right next to the city’s main attraction:

Setenil has just over 3,000 residents, though very few of them actually have houses built into the rocks. Apart from this alleyway, calle Jabonería and calle de las Cuevas de la Sombra are the only evidence of that this village has a claim to fame. You can drive under some of the overhangs, but we found that people weren’t willing to corral their dogs or small children or move out of the street for you.

We did climb to Calle Cerrillo, home to the San Sebastian hermitage and the supposed place where Isabel I of Castille (the most badass women in Spanish history) gave birth to a stillborn child of the same name. The sun was setting behind the mountains, turning the gorges golden and the buildings a dreamy off-white.

For a town with a rich history (Romans! Arab fortresses! Catholic Kings!) that’s known for its gastronomy, we left pretty disappointed with Setenil. The town was shabby, the locals indifferent to visitors and I saw very little encanto.

The town is a mere 20 minutes from Ronda and 20 more from El Gastor, so don’t go too far out of your way to visit – hit Vejer, Olvera and Arcos de la Frontera instead.

Like small towns in Spain? Tell me about your favorites or read a bit more on ones I love: Garganta la Olla (Cáceres) // San Nicolás del Puerto (Sevilla) // Carmona (Sevilla) // Osuna (Sevilla)

The Best-Kept Secrets in Florence

I admit I’m terrible at keeping secrets, but only the kind that you’re bursting to share with people. The kind where no one is being talked about and no one will get hurt.

I would have loved to keep the Novio completely in the dark about our Tuscan holiday until we arrived to the airport in January 2013, but as someone who hates surprises, it was easier to tell him to pack for a weekend of eating and drinking, with a little bit of walking around in between courses.

It’s not secret that I love Italy and just about everything I’ve experienced – my great aunt married an Italian just off the boat, and together they founded Chicago-based Italian food import company Dell’Alpe. Italian food and language have always been present at my family gatherings. The Novio had never been to anywhere north of Cagliari, so I bought him round-trip tickets, a secret I kept for less than three hours. 

Having spent my first solo trip in Florence, the city’s main sights held little mystique, so I got a local to spill the beans – Tiana Kai, an American married to a Fiorentino, who sent me a list of bars, enotecas and hole-in-the-wall trattorias. But everything went out the window when we arrived cold and hungry to Florence after 10pm.

Despite wrong turns, nearly scratching our rental car and being at the inability to find our hotel, the concierge suggested a hidden trattoria for dinner. When I say hidden, I meant really was – even after an exhaustive Internet search, I still can’t find the name. It was near the Mercato Centrale and just as nondescript as every family-run restaurant on the street.

We arrived just before the kitchen closed around 11pm. Ushered to a table and poured glasses of wine, we blinked blindly at the menu, which was all in Italian. A group of American students chattered nearby, crinkly their glasses of Chianti together every opportunity they got.

I found two words I knew – ravioli and gorgonzola – and settled on it. The Novio ordered another ravioli dish and a plate of antipasto. We broke a no-pasta-or-rice-before-bedtime rule.

The restaurant’s kitchen was just over his right shoulder, so I watched the chef hand roll the pasta, shape the raviolis and stuff what looked like pulled pork into the small squares of pasta. Lumps of cheese went into mine, which were then tossed in a wine sauce and garnishes with walnuts. The Novio had unwillingly chosen wild boar, which is also the unofficial mascot of the city (hence the photo).

The following morning dawned cold but bright. I walked the Novio past all of the important sites – the Uffizi Galleries, the Duomo, Ponte Vecchio. We vowed to spend our euros on food and drink, and therefore skipped the lines at the Medici palace for an espresso in the square, just steps from the iconic David statue.

We ended up near Santa Croce at noon. Entrance was a few euros, but as soon as the Novio found out it was Franciscan, he was willing to fork over the equivalent of a nice glass of wine. Though not a secret, hidden church, this basilica houses the remains of illustrious Italians, like Galileo and Michealangelo, in addition to providing respite from the cold sun. It’s a simple church, though its 16 chapels house frescoes from celebrated Italian artists.

We sat in the adjacent plaza after our visit,and I turned on my data to try and find a hole-in-the-wall pizza place I’d visited a few years back and found an open wi-fi code at a nearby wine bar. 

A college friend of mine had studied in Florence and recommended Il Gato e la Volpe. I had a meal there five years before, during my first trip alone in 2008. The waiters had sat me with an Italian American family who shared their wine and breadsticks with me as I devoured a pizza by myself.

Secret or not, this is as dive bar as classy Florence gets – wood paneling, rickety chairs and the smell of burnt pizza crust. We shared a liter of beer, a pizza and gnocchi with pesto for less than 12€, the price of a plate of pasta or individual pizza in a moderate restaurant near any major site in the city. (Via Ghiballina, 151, near Santa Croce. Open Daily)

We walked off our plates in the neighborhood, exploring roadside monuments and tucked-away piazzas before ending up back at the Arno and within view of the Ponte Vecchio.

The last place on our list was Piazzela Michelangelo – not an off-the-map place by any means, but most tourists don’t know it’s accessible by car. Tiana had clued us is, so we grabbed our bags from the hotel, shifted into first gear, and climbed the winding street in our Fiat.

The views were stunning on the clear day. We traced our steps through the narrow roads of the so-called Cradle of the Renaissance, from the Mercato Centrale to the Duomo to the backstreets of Santa Croce.

We were soon on the road to Bologna, food capital of Italy, where we’d skip again the leaning towers in favor of pasta, oysters and wine. Even in Emilia Romagna, we’d find locals willing to lead us to local foodie hangouts and invite us to rounds of grappa in the university area.

We left Italy after 48 hours, easily a few kilos heavier and without seeing any major sites. Unless, of course, you could seeing the Ponte Vecchio from afar.

Have you ever been to Florence or Bologna? 

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