Autonomous Community Spotlight: Castilla y León

 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.  

Finally, after six months, we’ve hit my first taste of Spain – a taste that is as tender as a suckling roast pig, as fiery as a robust glass of red wine and something that, honestly, feel like home to me.

In May 2005, I studied abroad in Valladolid, the de facto capital of Castilla y León and one-time capital of Spain. It’s where Cervantes, Columbus and Torquemada once called home. It may not have the monuments, the vibrant culture ubiquitous to Spain, the soaring skyscrapers – but that’s what I liked about it. 

Andalusia means so much to me, but it all started in Old Castille. 

 Name: Castilla y León

Population: 2.5 million

Provinces: Nine: Ávila, Burgos, León, Palencia, Salamanca, Segovia, Soria, Valladolid, Zamora. 

When: May 2005, 1st of 17

About Castilla y León: Castilla y León is the largest of the 17 autonomous communities (close to one-fifth of its landmass!), and one of its most illustrious. It was here that marriages (and thus kingdoms) joined and saints roamed, where scholars changed the face of modern Castillian Spanish, and where cities practically shine gold.

Can you tell I’m a fan?

So, let’s start from the beginning.

Despite having been inhabited for a millennia, the modern-day Castille and León was born out of the marriage of two monarchs. The Leonese crown had long been stronger and held more land, though at the beginning of the second millennia, their power began to wane, losing the kingdoms of Galicia and Portugal, along with their prestige. 

In 1230, the kingdoms became one when Castillian King Ferdinand III ascended to the vacant Leonés crown. These two crowns would fight independently in the Reconquest, eventually defeating Muslim taifas, though not before the Catholic kings – among the best-known Spanish monarchs of all time – send Christopher Columbus to the New World in 1492. Castilla has long been known for its scholarly and democratic traditions, which include being the region responsible for spreading castellano Spanish, as well as the first place where a curia, or public forum to address issue affecting the pueblo, was held.

In fact, Valladolid was the capital of Spain for five years in the early 17th century.

Among illustrious castellanos are El Cid Campeador, Felipe II (my favorite Spanish king with his funny hat), Santa Teresa de Ávila, Miguel Delibes, San Juan de la Cruz, Adolfo Suárez, and even former prime minister Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

Must-sees: Oh geez, where to start. I started, of course, in Valladolid, though there isn’t much to see in the capital city. There’s the national sculpture museum, a contemporary art center, a beautiful Plaza Mayor and a smattering of churches, though I spent most of my free time at the manmade beach on the Pisuerga River and at a bar called Sotobanco.

Skip Vdoid and head to the other treasures in the province, including nearby Peñafiel and its castle, which now hosts a wine museum. Castilla y León has a few protected one regions, including Ribera del Duero and Toro – two of my personal favorites.

Castilla y León has six UNESCO World Heritage sites, more than any other region in the world, and several are a quick day trip from Madrid: the old cities of Ávila, Salamanca and Segovia (plus its aqueduct), the Gothic cathedral of Burgos, the old Roman gold mines at Las Médulas (check out Trevor’s post and pictures) and the archaeological remains of Atapuerca, near Burgos. This, plus the numerous pilgrim routes that cut through CL.

Castles are a prominent feature in Castilla y León – like in Ireland, they’re practically everywhere and there are rumored to be around 300 of them. Check out the Templar castle in Ponferrada, Segovia’s fairytale-like Alcázar and Castillo de la Mota in Medina del Campo, which was a prominent fortress in the Battle of Castille. You’ll also only find Gaudí outside of Cataluña in León and Astorga, where a beautiful palace lies along the French Way of Saint James.

Food is also a huge reason why Castilla y León shines. Apart from wine, Castilla produces a number of specialty meats, including morcilla de arroz in Burgos and roast suckling pig, pungent cheeses and milk, and is the largest producer of grains in Iberia. Cracker giant Cuétara is based in Aguilar del Campoo (not a typo), near Galicia, and with reason – there is nothing but fields around! Be sure to check out León’s Barrio Húmedo for free tapas, as well – I once at a croquet de pizza pepperoni! You can also pick up sweets in Ávila that throwback to the town’s famous saint, Santa Teresa the Mystic.

The cities themselves are lovely, from the golden hue of Salamanca, a city famous for its university and Lazarillo de Tormes, to León’s juxtaposition of Gaudí palaces and humble stone homes. Burgos’s old town shines and Ávila’s fortified stone walls are still intact.

My take: If you’re a history or language buff, you have to get to Castilla y León sí o sí. If you love wine and meat and cheese, head out there. If you love churches, castles, rivers, limestone villages… you get it. 

To me, Castilla y León is more Spain than Andalucía. Call me crazy, but it’s the Spain I fell in love with nearly a decade ago, and the Spain that beckoned me back. Andalucía is flamboyant where Castilla is demure, yet a bit coy. And the wine… 

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

Have you been to Castilla y León? What were your impressions of it? Cue Kaley and Cassandra chiming in now...

Five Places in Spain that Surprised Me

When you’ve criss-crossed Spain as I have – both on four wheels and on foot – you’re bound to see a number of sites, of cities, of open road. While Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Granada are the cities most synonymous with a ten-day itinerary through Spain, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the, um, surprises in lesser-known cities and towns we’ve hit along the way.

Some have been planned, others were by pure luck or a because of a tummy rumble, or the place where I’d planned to rest my head. If you’re planning a trip to one of Spain’s big cities, there are plenty of other stops to consider not too far away:

Don’t go to SEVILLA: go to Jerez de la Frontera (Cádiz)

Sitting smack dab in the sunflower fields between coastal Cádiz and Seville is Jerez de la Frontera, a city renowned for its sherry and purebred Andalusian horses. Their fair is open to the public, their pubs fun and cheap, and the city is a gateway to the pueblos blancos in the region (as well as the beach!). I love Jerez because it’s like Sevilla lite - all of the andalusian salsero without the cost or the snobbery.

read more about Jerez.

Don’t go to OVIEDO: go to Avilés (Asturias)

Choosing a place to start the Camino del Norte last year was easy: we had two weeks, so we counted back 14 stages and ended up in Avilés, the third largest town in Asturias. While we’d heard that the city was smelly, industrial and a little unwelcoming, Hayley and I explored the town on foot the night before starting the big hike and found it a beautiful juxtaposition of traditional and up-and-coming. The food choices were outstanding, the buildings colorful and there were small pocket plazas and green spaces throughout the city center. It’s a quick FEVE ride from Oviedo and worth an afternoon.

Read more about Asturias

Don’t go to CÁCERES: go to Garganta la Olla (Cáceres)

After a disappointing visit to the Yuste monastery in the backwoods of Extremadura, we steered our car down the steep, cherry-blossom covered hills to the hamlet of Garganta la Olla. Rumor had it that it was one of Spain’s most beautiful villages – and it was – but it won me over with its bountiful free tapas, its dilapidated wooden porches and its local legends. It’s a bit out of the way, but a wonderful little place to wander through.

Read more about Extremadura

Don’t go to BARCELONA: go to Girona

I ended up in Girona after booking two flights with a long layover in the RyanAir hub of the same name. I expected to find an airport with something to keep me entertained, but instead saw little more than a snack bar. Plan B: get my poor culo to Girona and walk around to kill time. The city’s colorful buildings seem to tumble into the river, and its medieval alleyways and religious statues provide plenty of entertainment. It’s also home to some of Spain’s best dining! I don’t like Barcelona, but Girona is a quick escape away.

Read more about Cataluña

Don’t go to BENIDORM: go to Calpe (Alicante)

I was psyched to be invited on my first blog trip, #Calpemoción. I knew very little about the beach destination, other than that it was just north of Benidorm. From our first glimpse of the Ifach to the fresh seafood to stand-up paddle surfing, it was a beach escape worth repeating. What stood out about Calpe were the people we met, who had worked hard to be sure that tourism – while the city’s lifeblood and its most important sector – didn’t take away its charm.

Read more about Calpe

Spain is most like itself in its small towns and off-beat destinations. There are plenty of other places I’ve really enjoyed – Murcia, Cádiz, Alcalá de Henares – and others that are pure hype. Sure, Madrid has its museums and Barcelona has Gaudí, but getting out of the big cities makes trips more and candid. Thanks to a new house, I’m sticking close to home for my next few trips – Valverde del Camino, hiking in the Sierra Norte and a quick jaunt to Madrid with a visiting friend.

This post was brought to you by Booked.netTop Destinations to Go There Booked.net – Top Destinations to Go There, and I’m encouraging other bloggers to take part. So let’s hear it, Jessica | Mike | Tiana | Kaley | Courtney!

What’s your favorite city or town in Spain? Why do you love it? Have you been to any of the places listed above?

Tapa Thursdays: The Bar that Never Fails to Impress, La Azotea

I had snagged Lindsay for a rare night out. She strolled into the locale she’d suggested, bright as always and pronounced something to the effect of, “This is the best place I’ve tried lately, and this place is going to be huge.”

And true it was. La Azotea – a venture owned by a Spanish-American couple – has quickly grown from a small place in the Macarena to a four-venue favorite, with a few more concepts in the pipeline.

La Azotea has yet to let me down – not in food, not in service, not in wine list, not in the fact that a few of their waiters at the Mateos Gago location now call me by name, despite only going a few times a year.

Let’s start with the food.

On my first visit, Lindsay and I went a bit crazy, ordering several raciones as if we hadn’t eaten for days. But it all sounded so good and so fresh. The bar boasts ‘alta cocina’ and it delivers, changing the menu seasonly to reflect what’s in season or what showed up at the market that morning. My picks are the cod flanks with almond sauce served on a bed of pesto or the boiled octopus over mashed potatoes.

Like many bars in the city, you’ll find the traditional dishes, though they hint international or sometimes feature a different ingredient – think mackerel lasagna. 

I’m not one to order dessert while dining out, though I’ve made a few exceptions at La Azotea. While they’re famous for their homemade orange blossom ice cream with mint and raspberry, I’ve also had mini french toasts with spiced honey ice cream.

And now that they’ve opened for breakfast at Mateos Gago, no one will judge you for eating eggs for breakfast.

Then there’s the great wine pairings.

The staff is knowledgable about grapes, seasons and how well they’ll go with whatever you’ve picked out to eat. I’d venture to guess that there are 10-15 wines available on any given day, which include rosés and cavas. 

La Azotea also stocks  more of the hard-to-find wines. Garum and Matsu, my current favorites, can always be found behind the bar.

Above all, the personalized service, to me, sets La Azotea apart. The staff takes it time to explain dishes and suggest wines or desserts, they’re attentive to top off your glass or swipe you a few extra olives. I wouldn’t consider myself a local by any means, but I am usually greeted by name.

I sometimes feel that dining out in Seville can be a bit redundant, that even places that have been staples of the food scene have taken a nosedive in service and quality. But if we measure by sevillano standards, each bar in the La Azotea restaurant group is always buzzing and full – a sign that you’ve made it in a city renowned for its multitude of tapas eateries.

If you go: La Azotea boasts three full service restaurants and one abacería. Only their Mateos Gago location is open daily, open all day and even offers breakfast. Rumor has it this could change, so check their website for details.

Are you disappointed in the tapas scene in Spain, or feel like it fails to impress you? Or is there a bar you absolutely love, every single time?

Three Things I’ll Miss From the USA, and Two I Won’t

The plane took off on the first clear Chicago day in a week, passing over I-294 and seeming to hang just for a few moments in the air. I could faintly make out the skyline a few miles away, and as the thin clouds enveloped the plane. 

They say parting is such sweet sorrow, and my eyes certainly pricked with tears as I pulled the curtain and the plane rose higher, bound for Boston, then Santiago de Compostela and finally Madrid.

And I’m sitting in a Starbucks right now – what does that tell you about wanting to leave America?

For 40 glorious days, I walked my dog, I took advantage of having a dryer and I zoned out in front of Bravo for hours on end. Well, that, as well as planning a wedding, entertaining the Novio on his trip out here, and making sure to not gain too much weight. Forty days, by any measure, is not a long time, but it was heavenly (once I got over the reverse culture shock, that is): The pulse of the big city, the warm hugs of friends, the brilliance of a home cooked meal.

Even with the stress of the new house and a huge, bilingual party to plan, it was so comforting to be home with my family for the first time in two years. As someone who will be perpetually straddling the Atlantic – and thus two languages, two cultures and two continents – having two months off to visit is something I appreciate about teaching. I will never have it all, and I’ll always miss things about one home when I’m in the other. Call it my personal expat dilemma.

Usually, I’m ready to board a plane and head back to the land of 1€ beers and the social acceptance of a midday nap, but this time was different. I was sad to leave, finally feeling settled and comfortable. Apparently a few friends echoed that sentiment:

There are several things my heart will ache for once back in the Madre Patria, like

Craft Beer

I am in love with the idea that beer doesn’t have to taste like the beer of my college days, but can be full of hops or taste like a handful of blueberries. Trips to the basement for a bottle for me and my dad with dinner often resulted in me brining up four or six varieties so that we didn’t settle into a routine. I drank my fair share of microbrews, visited three local breweries and smuggled New Glarus – the darling and a new favorite – across the Wisco-Illinois border for the sake of my younger sister.

My father swears he drank more in those 40 days than he had since last summer. The Novio, despite a new love of wheat beers, was disappointed when his beer didn’t really taste like beer.

And I feel that way about coffee, for that matter. When I walked into a gorgeous little coffee shop to meet my wedding photographer, I stared blankly at the menu for maybe 90 seconds before the guy behind the counter offered to help. His bone dry cappuccino was exactly what I needed.

America, you have endless choices, but this little guiri was overwhelmed. But, really, I will be excited to just order a beer and not have anyone ask me what brand, what size and what the hell they’re thinking for charging so much. Cruzcampo, I am waiting for you.

Wi-fi everywhere

I had forgotten what it was like to be able to connect to wi-fi anywhere in the USA. Seville’s half-assed attempt to put in hot spots has reduced it to, well, Starbucks. For someone whose mobile battery lasts about an hour, this saved me during endless errands for the wedding and friends who thought I’d adopted the Spanish habit of being late to everything.

My friends. My wonderful, hilarious friends.

I don’t really miss American much when I’m in Spain, but I do really, really miss my friends. Cheers to every single one of you for making the time to see me, even for a quick drink at happy hour or a ten-minute chat on the phone.  It was especially telling when I announced that the Novio wouldn’t be at the engagement party my parents threw us, and we ran out of the keg her in 90 minutes because my friends still came.

Being home is like an endless carousel of meals out and money spent, but every penny of it was worth it. I love being able to fall easily into a conversation, even after so many months away. Suffice to say, I am already looking forward to being back home next year and throwing a huge party with all of my nearest and dearest.

And then there are a few American annoyances that I won’t miss:

Driving

Ugh, if I didn’t drive again for forty days, it would be too many. On the multiple trips to see friends, to interview vendors and venues for the wedding and to visit family (plus the road trips to Wisconsin and Iowa City twice each, as well as Indiana), I must have spent a whole week trapped in the confines of my mom’s 2004 Plymouth van.

I love the convenience of having a car in Spain, but I’m already looking forward to breaking out my bike and walking to meet friends or go to work. Traffic and gas prices are just a pain.

The Food

Now, I won’t miss all-beef hot dogs or sweet corn on the grill, but I am ready to eat food that isn’t laden with artificial colors and flavors. Those strawberries my dad bought me the first weekend? They’ve only begun to sprout mold. And the yoghurt I got for breakfast at the hotel? I took one bite and pushed it away, convinced it was just a combination of chemicals.

Since adding preservatives to food or livestock is illegal in the EU, I feel heavier and unhealthier after six weeks back home in Chicago. One thing I love about Spain is the cuisine, and knowing that a banana from Canarias is, in fact, a banana from Canarias makes me feel better about my average daily intake of food.

When my plane rolled into Barajas a few hours ago, the depression of going back to work and having to start paying for my groceries seemed to evaporate. Even with a serious lack of craft beer, I’ll be happy to have a plain old café con leche and stay off my phone when catching up with Spain friends.

How do you deal with being an expat when it comes to missing things? What do you miss about your home country when you’re gone, and vice versa?

Spain Snapshots: The 10 Best Memes of Spain’s Crushing Defeat in the World Cup

In truth, it was a bendición from the gods: after watching Betis get relegated to Segunda as a card-carrying socio, I had all my cards on Spain’s World Cup bid.

I mean, we won The Euro Cup in 2008 (and my Barca-loving boss at Banana Republic scheduled all of break time together so I could give him updates during the game), the World Cup in 2010 and the Euro Cup again two years later. 

You can imagine the relief I felt when my academy’s end-of-year dinner was scheduled for the same night as the Spain-Chile match, and I didn’t have to suffer through 90 minutes of dreams dying (and probably unicorns and other things as elusive as going four-for-four).

I made myself a gin and tonic at home and settled into my favorite part of losing: MEMES!

Whenever you’re feeling down that Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar are probably taking great pleasure in the reigning World Champs becoming the first team to be eliminated in the first round, bookmark this page and remember the better times of La Selección Española:

Diego Costa

Ugh, let’s talk about how much I loathe Diego Costa, a former Atlético Madrid player who gave up his spot on the Brazilian national team to attain Spanish citizenship, believing he’d have a better chance at winning the cup with Spain than his own country.

Can we get a slow clap here right now?

El Tiki Taka

Spain’s famed ‘tiki taka’ style of short, direct passes haven’t brought them a ton of goals, but it has helped them attain the three peat. 

Clearly didn’t work against a revenge-hungry Holland, or a more decisive Chile. Thanks for the memories, Tiki Taka.

The Sinking Ship

One of the more popular memes I’ve seen on Facebook has been the sinking ship with the band’s heads replaced by Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos, Cesc Fabregas and Iker Casillas.

Be it a metaphor for a country that lost a king and a dream and their dignity in one day?

(S)PAINFUL

 

Cruel, guys.

De Vacaciones

Some players on the Selección have admitted to being tired after 40 weeks of league play, plus European league championships and a number of friendlies leading up to the Cup.

Spain’s goalie and captain, Iker Casillas, can finally take a break with his girlfriend, sports reporter Sara Carbonera, and gets an entire month to enjoy. Just like every other Spaniard. 

Waka Waka

While everyone was dancing the Waka Waka in South Africa, I was falling in love with Barcelona star Gerard Piqué.

Shakira apparently was, too, but her home team is first in their group, so maybe some Waka Waka? Eh? Eh?

Sorry, that was so bad.

La Abdicación

Last Wednesday, I didn’t even know Spain. Apart from the team losing, Spain’s King, Su Majestad Juan Carlos I, officially left the throne, and his son was crowned the following morning.

In this meme, JC thanks Spain National Team Coach Vicente del Bosque for doing everything possible to be present on his son’s big day.

If only. Also not present? The Spanish rose AKA Cayetana de Alba. Trick doesn’t like being shown up!

Hardware

A visual reminder that, when you’re on top, there’s no place to place to go but down (or back to Spain via Iberia).

El Tupper

Poor Pepe Reina. Spain’s back up goalie has been invited to be ‘convocado’ by the Spanish Selección for the past three World Cups, but he has yet to clock any minutes. Iker Casillas has gotten all of the glory.

On the bright side, he gets a free trip to Brazil and someone will send him back to the Madre Patria with a Tupperware full of something delicious. 

Do you think they’ll get to-go cups of caipirinhas, too? 

Sergio Ramos

The Real Madrid hincha was recently revered for a tying the Champions League final in the last minutes against Diego Costa and his crosstown team, but what he has in fútbol skills, he kinda lacks in smarts.

El Pony de Camas is asked to translate the word red and use it in a sentence. If you know Spanish, you know that ‘red’ also means net, so Ramos, a defender, tells goalie Iker Casillas to take the ball out of the net. Again.

Sad, but so, so on.

Bueno.

As the Novio says, “The definition of sport: a physical activity subject to rules and regulations that is always won by the Spaniards.”

I’d say he’s eating his words, but he’s probably just glad I’ll stop spending so much money on beer and nachos. Go Team USA?

Who are you rooting for in the World Cup? I’m pushing for Mexico, the USA and Germany. And don’t worry, Iker – I still love you.

Behind Every Plate: A Day with Insiders Madrid

The more immersed I become in the Spanish gastronomic world, the more interest I have in where food comes from, who makes it (or butchers it or cures it or raises it) and the stories behind everything I consume.

I recently spent the day with Joanna, the founders of Insiders Madrid. I was jet lagged, emotionally fraught from my grandfather’s death and not really sure what day it actually was.

Given the choice between many different types of tours, I chose the follow my nose and stomach on the Gourmet Food Shop Tour on a bright June morning. We met right on Gran Vía, the juxtaposition of old Madrid and shiny new Madrid. Apart from snacking at four stops along the way, I was able to meet the owners and operators of some of the most renowned food shops in Spain’s capital. 

Joanna has traveled extensively and worked in television for years before deciding to follow her passion: to provide luxury and off-beat tours to people from around the world. Between samples of Spanish foods like ham and olive oil, we shared stories about dining and drinking in Spain. 

Our first stop in Malasaña was at Madrid’s oldest charcuterie. A photo of owner Antonio’s grandfather – the shop’s founder – hung above the door.

I had mentioned to Joanna that the Novio’s family raises livestock and produces ham, and she quipped, “What could I possibly tell you about ham that I don’t already know?”

The truth is, plenty.

Antonio explained the way that feed and climate can affect the taste of the ham, mixing in family anecdotes from nearly a century of holding down the shop in an area of town that has seen major gentrification in the last few years. Antonio’s shop sidles up to hip boutiques and art galleries that double as watering holes.

We snacked on freshly cut ham and picos and artisanal beers brewed just around the corner.

At the nearby church of San Antonio de los Alemanes, a priest gave us permission to look around in the oval-shaped chapel that has been dubbed Spain’s very own Sistene Chapel. He excused himself to tend to business down a spiral staircase as Joanna paid a small donation. After the financial crisis hit Spain, the priests at San Antonio opened a soup kitchen, called a comedor social, downstairs to serve those affected by unemployment and wage freezes. The money we paid for an entrance went right to feeding the needy.

My jet lag must have been noticeable, as Joanna suggested we go for a coffee at one of Madrid’s most prolific cafeterías, Café Comercial. The age-old, mirrored cafe was calm in the break between breakfast and lunch, but I chose a vermouth over a coffee, convinced I’d crash after so many coffees.

The establishment is run by Fernando, a young restaurateur who has been in the food service industry for two decades, and who invited me to breakfast the next morning. Joanna says the café doubles as her office – she meets clients and food providers here over a coffee or vermouth.

As we chatted over fresh orange juice and enormous toasts, Fernando pointed out the bar staff. Most had been working for Comercial for well over ten years and could speak of the evolution of a well-known establishment whose clientele de toda la vida had come and gone. Fernando told me about clients who had been around forever, eating the same dish and sitting in the same chair for ages.

Fernando is working to breathe new life into an old place by adding vermouth tastings, language exchanges and theatre performances.

Racing the clock, we sampled olive oils from beyond Andalucía before ending on a sweet note: a chocolate tasting at a renowned chocolate bar. Joanna chose six or eight different flavors, each of which had been blended with cocoa beans to form outages flavors with hints of spice, cheese and fruit. 

As we closed the tour with a quick caña after the sugar rush, we got to talking like old friends about our shared passions: food, drink and Spain.

Joanna and Seth of Insider’s Madrid graciously invited me on their Gourmet Food Shop tour, but all opinions are my own. The tour lasts approximately three hours at the cost of 65€ per head, which includes all tastings. Purchases at the stop are at your own cost.

Love Spanish food? Check out my biweekly food feature, Tapa Thursdays!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...