A Peek at Life in India: the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur

From where we stood, halfway up the hill to the Monkey Temple, the waning light was turning ‘The Pink City’ a pearly, golden hue. The jagged skyline’s stack of buildings and telephone poles, a thousand candles, was like a fanciful birthday cake.

I scanned the horizon across Jaipur, noting the immense desert city that sat sprawled between mountains. We’d come because the city that had been painted the color of hospitality was rumored to be beautiful but gritty, busy but manageable. The Amer palace was the draw, but I had my eyes locked on the cake topper in the center of the cake – the Hawa Mahal.

Our tuk-tuk driver, Ali, warned us that the Hawa Palace was not really worth seeing. “It’s a house. A pink house. Better at Mughal market for the shopping.”

I’m sure you say that to all the ladies, Ali. Tu t’aime las filles, after all.

On our only full day in Jaipur, we did a whirlwind tour of the Fort, skipping the elephant ride as we climbed the hill on which the intricate palace sits before seeing the Janta Mantur observatory. While Ali tried to persuade us that it was better to skip the pink palace for a lassi drink and browsing the spice market, I couldn’t get over the pink lattice windows that peeked out above the city palace.

Like in many countries I’ve visited, the Hawa Mahal is essentially a fancy brothel, beautifully constructed living quarters that once included gilded doors and extravagant fountains against a facade that resembles a honeycomb. The five-story building is riddled with staircases, rooms, windows and lattice-work, allowing its inhabitants to see life on the streets below without actually being seen themselves.

Hayley and I saw a great deal of India from a tuk tuk, not quite on in a hit-the-pavement sort of way I had craved when we booked tickets. Even through the kindness of hotel owners, who helped us when we were scammed, through driving tuk tuk down deserted roads, to posing in pictures with sari-clad Indians in front of the Taj Mahal, I feel as though we barely scratched India’s expansive surface.

Like the women who once lived in the small bedrooms of the Palace of the Winds and could witness the trading and chaos, the wandering animals and the comforting hum of daily life in Jaipur, our India experience felt like theirs – someone not quite on the inside. I suddenly had the urge to skip Mumbai and stay in the Pink City, to consider India in the future. After five days, two train rides and countless interactions with strangers, I knew one trip to India would never be enough for me.

Ali was waiting for us at the Tripolia Bazaar, feet up on the narrow dashboard of his motorized tricycle. “So, very boring, yes?” he questioned as we climbed into the back and he sped off towards the spice market.

I somehow knew India had gotten under my skin in that very moment.

Have you ever wanted to learn more about a destination after you’d visited? Or do you see things and then mentally cross it off a bucket list?

Autonomous Community Spotlight: Las Islas Canarias

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.

When the Novio asked if it would be ok if he took me to a wedding on Gran Canaria island, I started looking for flights before I even agreed. Located off of the coast of Africa, this archipelago is comprised of a dozen islands, has two capitals and is famous for being a holiday maker’s paradise. 

As we drove around Gran Canary on an amazing road trip, dined on fresh seafood and I attended my first Spanish wedding, I almost forgot that most of the people we met or who served us spoke English. Six years later, I was on a Tenerife road trip with locals, exploring caverns, colonial cities and Spain’s highest peak.

The islands are definitely Spanish while retaining a little bit of a wild heart.

Name: Islas Canarias

Population: 2.1 million, the majority of whom are on Tenerife and Gran Canaria

Provinces: The Canaries consist of seven main islands: and Tenerife in the Santa Cruz de Tenerife province; and Gran Canaria in the Las Palmas de Gran Canaria province. What other autonomous region can boast two regional capitals?!

When: 11th of 17 regions, June 2008 

About: The islands’ name is said to be derived from the population of monk seals that once inhabited the islands. Volcanic eruptions led to the formation of the seven inhabited islands and five smaller islands less than 100 kilometers off the coast of Morocco, which are believed to have been inhabited from the Roman times, or perhaps earlier by aboriginals once called guanches.

Thanks to its strategic positioning, the islands have served as an outpost for explorers (including Columbus), mission bases for galleons and fleets and pirate hideouts. The islands were colonized by the Castillian crown in the early 15th century, and the autonomy gained status as one of Spain’s 17 in the early 1980s. Nowadays, sugar and bananas are huge exports, and small pockets of immigrants from the mainland, Europe and northern Africa make the islands an interesting cultural melting pot.

Must-sees: The big draw to the Canarias is the sun – the islands get more sunny days and a more stable climate than any other place in Spain. So there’s the beach, the sand and the sun, which is why droves of budget flights congregate in the two largest airports in the archipelago, Tenerife Sur and Gran Canaria. In fact, I flew for free to Tenerife earlier this year! Lanzarote also draws those with a love of hiking and adventure sports.

On my first visit, we spent time on Gran Canaria, hitting the capital, the touristy southern resort towns of the island like Maspalomas, Playa de los Ingleses and Puerto Mogán and the northern gems of Arucas and Agaete before visiting the central mountains of this near-circular island.

My long weekend in Tenerife was full of adventure – from the guachinches to scaling Mount Teide, Spain’s highest point. While the southern part of the islands draws the sun seekers and the cruise ships, the north is a bit more local and untamed, as well as wallet-friendly. The cliffs are just as dramatic as I’d expect them to be on the other islands, which are far less touristy.

Undoubtedly, what stands out about the islands is the biodiversity, from marine life to plants. The islands boast four national parks, a number of celebrated canarios and a dedication to preserving the island way of life. I was shocked to see so many local fairs, Canarian kitchens and a pidgin-holed language that uses gua-gua instead of bus or employs whistles.

Oh, and then there’s the Carnival, one of the largest outside of Brazil. And the food – the fresh shellfish, the soft cheeses and the mojo picón-drenched wrinkly potatoes.  

My take: I am always a bit hesitant about places that are overly touristy and catered towards those wallets. When the Novio took me to Gran Canaria, we sat on the dunes in Maspalomas, sun bathed on Playa de las Canteras and ate in a British pub. But we also partied at a Spanish wedding in a beautiful church in Arucas and drove to Roque Nublo in the center of the island.

We truly got the best of both worlds – the familiarity of my Anglo world with the charm of an island community, plus the melting pot of so many other languages, cultures and histories. I felt like it was a bridge between my two worlds.

Have you been to the Canary Islands? What would you recommend seeing, eating and doing?

Check out the other regions I’ve highlighted: Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares . If you’re looking for other great blogs on the Canaries, don’t miss Gran Canaria Local or Island Momma.

Each month for the next 14, I’ll take a look at Spain’s 17 comunidades autónomas and my travel through them, from A to, um, Valencia. I’d love your take on the good and the bad in each one, so be sure to sign up for my RSS feed to read about each autonomous region at the end of each month! Next up for August is Cantabria.

Spain Snapshots: The Guadalupe Monastery of Cáceres

Many great places in Spain are seeped in legends, mentioned in texts or venerated by the insane queues at its ticket offices (I’m looking at you, Alhambra). 

For me, the Real Monasterio de Guadalupe was an obscure monastery and the name of many females, little more than a blip on a map in the wild back country of Extremadura. I figured it was worth a detour on our way to Trujillo.

Then came this:

According to legend, the veneration may have been carved in the 1st Century by Saint Luke himself, who then carted her around the world  before presenting the Archbishop of Seville, San Leandro, with it. During the Moorish invasion that commenced in 711, the Archdiocese of Seville looked for a place to hide her as invaders ransacked cities and palaces.

Turns out, I have something in common with this particular image of the Virgin Mary (besides my birthday being on the day of her ascension into heaven): we both made a pilgrimage to Guadalupe from Seville of 320 kilometers. When she arrived, though, she was buried next to the Guadalupe River and not discovered until the late 12th Century.

On that very spot, a humble chapel was erected and eventually converted into one of Spain’s most important (and arguably most stunning) monasteries.

Like all great pilgrimage sites, like the ending points of the Camino de Santiago or El Rocío, Guadalupe has attracted illustrious names in Spanish history – Columbus prayed here after returning from the New World (and the Madonna is now revered in Central and South America), King Alfonso XI invoked Guadalupe’s spirit during the Battle of Salado, and many modern-day popes have stopped to pray.

While we weren’t on a religious pilgrimage, really, I’m slowly ticking UNESCO World Heritage Sites off of my Spain list, and Guadalupe is listed as such. We joined the last tour of the day after getting lost in teeny towns on nearly abandoned highways, many of which bear names that were later given to cities in the New World, like Valdivia, where we devoured fried calamari sandwiches.

Tours to Guadalupe’s cloisters, treasury, church, religious art museum and sacristy can only be done on a guide tour in Spanish, which leave on the hour. As the monk droned on about artistic heritage, I stole into the Gothic cloistered courtyard.

As we had joined the last tour of the day, an elderly monk showed us through the sacristy, painted in its entirety by Zurburán, and invited us to the room that held one of three black Madonnas. The soaring chamber had frescoes of Catholicism’s most famous female saints, relics in every wall and a small turnstile that allowed the three women on my tour named Guadalupe to kiss the hands of the veneration.

They, like Columbus and Cervantes before them, had come to pray in front of the woman who gave them their name and ask for her eternal protection.

As it turns out, the 60 minutes we’d budgeted for the monastery stretched to nearly two hours, meaning we were late to meet Angela from Trujillo Villas, but a night in a cozy palace-turned-vacation-home has us back on the right track the following morning before visiting Yuste and the gorgeous hamlet of Garganta la Olla.

Have you ever been to Extremadura?

Spain Snapshots: My Perfect Madrileño Day

Danny and I were on our third glass of vermouth in Malasaña when it dawned on me: Madrid had finally won me over.

Between the barrio life, the collision of old and traditional with new and different and the balmy late spring nights, La Capital is quickly becoming one of my favorite escapes in Spain.

Madrid isn’t as outright beautiful as Seville or as wildly gorgeous as the calas on Menorca. It’s not old and cobblestoned or dripping in Gaudí’s whimsical architecture. It’s a bit grandiose on one block, and a bit gritty on the next.

 Simply put, it’s a Spanish city that encompasses it all and is the epicenter for nearly everything in Iberia.

My most recent trip to Madrid was two-fold: I was coming back from an emergency trip to the US, and I’d be brainstorming and hamming in front of the camera for a project I’m working on with other social media darlings. But as soon as I’d touched down in Barajas, my jet lag dissipated, and I spent the day retracing my favorite madrileño haunts and finding new spots to love.

My perfect Madrid day, unfiltered: Strolling, snacking, meeting lifelong madrileños and other adoptive gatos who have decided to call Madrid home.

Like Madrid? Check out these posts: Mercado de San Miguel // The Saturday City // Casa Hernanz // Visiting Alcalá de Henares

Spain Snapshots: Garganta la Olla, the gorgeous extremeño pueblo you’ve never, ever heard of

There was only one real reason why we stopped: it was sunny and just about 1pm, which meant it was beer hour. Snaking down the one-lane highway that led from the Monastery of Yuste, where Holy Roman Emperor Charles V retired to die, we decided to stop in the next town for a while.

That town was Garganta la Olla, a blip of a pueblo that has a larger-than-life legend. The woman behind the bar graciously served us a heaping plate of cured meats and cheeses with our beer as she hummed and wiped a few glasses clean. Garganta la Olla is home to just over 1000 inhabitants, making it yet another sleepy hamlet in the Cáceres region of Extremadura.

I tugged the Novio’s hand as I led him down the main road towards town hall. The wood and stone thatched houses looked like they’d been haphazardly constructed – kind of like the way the sticks fall in a game of Pick Up Sticks. Carvings in the doors mark just how old the village is – some of the constructions date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when Garganta la Olla was in its heyday, although it’s believed to have been inhabitant for nearly 2000 years. 

The houses reminded me of the sort I might have seen in Haro, La Rioja or even outside of Spain. We walked beneath balconies supported by wooden pillars that housed humble homes. Within 30 minutes, we’d seen the whole of the center leisurely, including the artificial beach of Garganta Mayor, a nice sojourn after Yuste disappointed us (both in price and museum – not worth it!).

As for the legend of La Serrana de la Vera, it’s said that a scorned woman took up residence in the nearby Garganta, or mountain crevice, from which she seduced men and then killed them exacting her revenge against the Archbishop of Plasencia, who broke up their engagement and sentenced her family to a lifetime of dishonor. Miguel de Unamuno, a celebrated Spanish author, penned her legend, which is also accompanied by demon and serpentine figures that make up local lore. Día de la Serrana de la Vera is celebrated each August, and the city retains its medieval feel.

And if you’re into it, there’s also an Inquisición Museum that shows medieval torture tools and a former brothel that now houses a shop with products from the area – cured meats, sweet paprika and sweet breads.

Garganta la Olla is located in the La Vera region of Cáceres, at the foothills of the Sierra de Gredos. It’s about 45 minutes east of Plasencia and two hours north of Badajóz. 

Have you ever spent time in Extremadura? What are your favorite small towns in Spain?

Tapa Thursdays: Eating at a Guachinche on Tenerife

Julie’s plan had only three itinerary stops on my only full-day on Tenerife: Rental car. Teide. Guachinche :)

Eager not to ruin my own surprise, I refused to give into sneaking a peek at what this oh-so-tenerifeño dining experience was. I actually didn’t know it had anything to do with food until after we’d climbed to the peak of Teide on empty stomachs and was promised a mountain of raciones.

Zigzagging down the face of the active volcano through rollercoast roads, I actually think I heard my tripa gurgle. But the excitement in which Julie told me about these temporary, family-run restuarants blew my expectations (sorry, done on the volcano expressions and puns).

“Si esto se llama La Salú para mi madre, que descanse en paz!” 

The small restaurant’s owner, David, was showing us around the various dining rooms, all set around a humble kitchen where family members were peeling Canarian wrinkly potatoes (papas arrugás) and preparing meat at a grill. His mother, a sevillana by birth, married a Venezuelan before moving to the island. When she passed away, her family, who had always loved wine, planted a small vineyard and the guanchinche was born. The name, La Salud, is a homenage to the family matriarch.

We chose seats on the covered patio, watching the clouds roll in over Puerto Cruz. 

Guachinches began to spring up on Tenerife as humble restaurants from which small producers could sell their product. The island’s volcanic landscape lends well to producing young, fruity reds, so we ordered a half liter to begin with. The restaurants operate so long as there is wine to sell – it’s common to find guachinches closed late in the season. 

There were just five dishes on the menu, guaranteeing that everything we tried was fresh – eggs, sobresada and fries (huevos estampidos); garbanzos with a spicy tomato sofrito; chistorra sausage with fries, steak and cheese produced on the island. We ordered all but the steak and an extra half litre of the family’s fruity, fresh wine.

What I loved about the experience (aside from the price – 25€ for everything!), was the personal service we received. Everything was served hot and tasty, and we left satisfied.

Guachinches have started to pop up on nearby Gran Canaria, but the real thing is as tenerifeño as Teide itself.

If you go: La Salud is located in the town of La Orotava on the western side of the island, just east of tourist town Puerto Cruz. The address is Camino de Los Gomez, S/N. They’re typically open from 1pm until 11pm, though may be closed if the wine is depleted. You’ll need a rental car to reach many of them, or a reliable taxi service, as the guachinches tend to be set away from major cities in the north.

Have you ever been to a guachinche, or something similar? Would you eat with locals?

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